Statement on the Launch of the Grassroots Public Interest Obligations Campaign

Common Cause Vice President for Advocacy Celia Wexler at the National Press Club

Today, with our launch of the “win back the airwaves, one station at a time” campaign, we will give concerned citizens the tools to directly confront broadcasters in their towns and cities, and to tell them they want more: more public affairs programming, more substantive news coverage, and more diversity of views. Citizens will be asking local broadcasters to sign a pledge agreeing to better serve the public by airing two hours a week of substantive coverage of elections in the six weeks before election day.

We hope that the launch of this grassroots campaign will remind local station managers and the parent networks that especially in an election year, the broadcast license is a powerful tool that requires coverage of the most important “reality show” of all – our democracy.

It is important that Common Cause, with its 300,000 members and supporters throughout the country, participate in this effort.

For more than 30 years, Common Cause has worked to connect citizens to their democracy. But citizens cannot govern themselves unless they have the information they need. We depend on the mass media for that information, particularly our local TV stations.

TV stations receive valuable licenses from the government that permit them to broadcast over the airwaves – airwaves that belong to the public. In exchange for those licenses, broadcasters promise to serve the public.

Anyone who has watched TV news recently knows that broadcasters by and large are not doing a good job informing Americans about important issues. Many of us watch local news shows that are the equivalent of mental junk food: heavy on stories about crime, and pop culture, and light on intelligent journalism that explains and illuminates.

Local TV stations, increasingly owned by large media corporations focused on the bottom line rather than the public interest, are cheating all of us by cutting back on substantive news coverage.

Consider this:

Despite the fact that profit margins for local TV stations were around 40 percent, nearly six out of ten TV news outlets cut their staffs in 2002, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The Project’s five-year study of local TV news found that investigative reporting has declined by 60 percent, and that about one-third of local stories were not even staffed by a news reporter on the scene.

Likewise, an exhaustive examination of local political coverage of the 2002 elections by the University of Southern California Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s political science department showed that TV news is failing to cover elections. Over a seven-week period before the 2002 elections, more than half of the top half-hour news broadcasts in the country’s largest TV markets did not offer any election coverage at all.

And according to the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, fewer than one in five network evening news stories about the 2004 Democratic presidential primary races examined candidate positions on issues or voting records.

The more than two million Americans who last year contacted the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to oppose increased media concentration were reacting to both media consolidation and its effects – bottom-line driven programming that comes from corporate offices far from their hometowns and communities.

Media consolidation and the public interest obligations of broadcasters are intertwined.

That is why Common Cause is a member of the Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition, whose members include consumer, religious, civil rights and media reform groups. At a time when broadcasters are poised to receive even greater benefits from their government licenses, as television goes digital, our coalition is pressing the FCC to adopt specific public interest standards for TV stations, standards that stress that TV must serve viewers by providing programs that report on local, state and national issues, provide diverse sources of views and information, and cover elections at the local, state and national level

Common Cause has already engaged more than 100,000 members and supporters to work on media issues. We have organized meetings in the local districts of members of Congress, in cafes and restaurants and at FCC sponsored hearings. We will be giving these activists the tools to contact their local TV station management, to confront that management on their public service record, and to ask that they do more. We hope that these meetings are productive and serve as a catalyst for greater and more comprehensive election coverage that touches all races, particularly those below the presidential level, particularly congressional, state and local races.

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