News You Can't Trust
Breaching the public interest
by Karen Charman
Extra / FAIR, August 2003
How much protection do broadcast journalists
have against employers who pressure them to distort or falsify
their reports? According to the 2nd District Court of Appeals
in Lakeland, Florida, none.
On Valentine's Day this year, that court
overturned Jane Akre's jury verdict awarding her $425,000 for
wrongful dismissal from Tampa Fox affiliate WTVT after she, along
with her husband and journalistic partner, Steve Wilson, refused
to report false information about growth hormones in milk (Extra!
Update, 6/98; Extra!, 1-2/01). The court's reasoning: The Federal
Communications Commission's news distortion policy isn't a real
regulation; therefore Akre, who claimed protection under it in
her lawsuit against Fox, wasn't actually a whistleblower and had
no grounds for protection against pressure from her employer to
distort a news story.
"It's vindication for WTVT, and we're
very pleased," the station's general manager Bob Linger told
the St. Petersburg Times (2/15/03). "It's the case we've
been making for two years. She never had a legal claim."
Akre strongly disagrees. "Nothing
in the decision that reversed the verdict at trial absolved Fox
of what the jury found to be misconduct in pressuring a reporter
to go on the air with a false story to appease the subject of
our investigation," Akre said. "They may call it vindication,
but overturning a jury's decision on a technicality that it's
not illegal to lie on the public airwaves is not vindication in
the mind of any honest and ethical journalist."
The Florida appeals court also slapped
Akre with Fox's legal fees, which she expects exceed $1 million.
Absent from the court's decision was any | recognition that Fox
broadcasts on the public's airwaves, and in return for that incredibly
lucrative privilege, the Communications Act of 1934 requires it
to broadcast in "the public interest, convenience and necessity."
Knowing that the airwaves are both a scarce
resource and a uniquely powerful tool for communicating to the
public at large, Congress initially made that requirement in 1927
in deference to the First Amendment, which recognizes that democracy
cannot function without a press that provides a check on government
power and keeps the citizenry informed about issues that affect
But despite the requirement to serve the
public interest, commercial television-the dominant form of our
mass media system-is now devoid of even a pretense of serving
the public, says media critic Mark Crispin Miller.
Television can be particularly deceptive,
Miller says, because people tend to believe what they see: "If
the networks show it and CNN discusses it, then it's true."
Conversely, if something is merely covered in the foreign press,
on the Internet, or even buried in the fine print of a newspaper
article here, it is not considered legitimate. "Media manipulation
in the U.S. today is more efficient than it was in Nazi Germany,
because here we have the pretense that we are getting all the
information we want," he says. "That misconception prevents
people from even looking for the truth."
Part of the problem is that commercial,
profit-driven media are required by law to maximize shareholder
profits, which Miller characterizes as an irreconcilable conflict
with broadcasters' public-interest obligations. Investigative
reporting gets short shrift because it is both time-consuming
and costly compared to the fare that dominates today's television
news: stories about street crime, celebrities or government pronouncements.
Hard-hitting investigative reporting can also antagonize advertisers
and bring threats of massive lawsuits, like the one Monsanto threatened
when Jane Akre researched the company's bovine growth hormone.
The TV and radio industry currently rakes
in nearly $60 billion a year from advertising on the public airwaves.
Broadcasters pay nothing to the government for their licenses,
though they are allowed to sell them for millions of dollars.
Broadcasters even routinely abdicate their
most obvious responsibility for keeping the public informed and
engaged in the political process: covering electoral races. According
to Paul Taylor, former executive director of the Alliance for
Better Campaigns, a nonprofit group that advocates free airtime
for candidates, pre-election news coverage of the candidates has
in many cases all but disappeared.
At the same time, the cost of political
ads on television, the third highest source of ad revenues for
the industry, has more than quadrupled since 1982. In the 2002
election cycle, candidates spent more than $1 billion on political
ads. Despite legislation intended to limit candidates' advertising
costs, broadcast stations take advantage of the compressed time
period candidates have to get their message out. Taylor says the
Alliance's most recent study found that ad prices at 39 stations
around the country rose by more than 50 percent in the two months
before the 2002 elections.
This arrangement, he says, suits both
broadcasters and incumbents just fine. In an article in the Washington
Monthly (9/00), Taylor explained it this way: "Politicians
give commercial broadcasters the public airwaves for free. During
the campaign season, broadcasters turn around and sell air time
back to the politicians, while imposing a virtual news blackout
on candidate discussion of issues.... By creating a pay-to-play
model for political speech on the nation's premier medium for
political communication, the television industry protects incumbents,
starves challengers and enriches itself."
The public interest standard in broadcasting
dates back to the Radio Act of 1927, as an attempt to reconcile
broadcasters' commercial goals and their public interest obligations.
Both Congress and the FCC have over the years developed specific
regulations intended to encourage news programs, foster diverse
cultural and public affairs programming, ensure candidate access
to the airwaves, serve local communities, develop high-quality
children's programming and maintain a separate system of noncommercial
Public interest obligations were treated
seriously until they came under attack in the Reagan years, when
the FCC under Mark Fowler-who described television as nothing
more than "a toaster with pictures"-began to advocate
a market approach to broadcast regulation.
Under Reagan, long-standing rules designed
to enforce public interest standards were eliminated. These included
requirements that stations air minimum amounts of public affairs
programming, limit advertising time, maintain program logs and
formally consult their local community to determine its broadcast
needs. The license renewal process-when a station's public-interest
performance used to be formally assessed-was transformed into
a postcard notification that made renewals virtually automatic
and extended license terms from three to five years. (Broadcast
license terms were extended again to eight years in the Telecommunications
Act of 1996.)
In 1987, Reagan's FCC eliminated the Fairness
Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air and provide contrasting
viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance. Some
credit abolition of the Fairness Doctrine with enabling the right-wing
dominance of the airwaves today. "Now there's no recourse
against a station that wants to be completely one-sided or that
refuses to air a certain point of view," says Angela Campbell,
a law L professor and co-director of the Institute for Public
Representation at Georgetown University. Recently, for example,
several broadcast stations refused to air paid anti-war commercials
before the U.S. invaded Iraq.
Campbell points out that when the FCC
made its first deregulatory sweep of public-interest broadcasting
rules, the agency said that caps on station ownership ensuring
a diversity of owners coupled with anti-discrimination employment
rules would guarantee a diversity of views. But the courts have
since struck down the equal opportunity rules, and the limits
on ownership have been dramatically loosened over the past 20
Contempt for the public interest
In early June, the FCC voted along partisan
lines to allow broadcasters to own still more stations, and to
buy up newspapers and cable outlets in the markets they dominate.
FCC chair Michael Powell, who has dismissed the very concept of
the public interest, scheduled just one public hearing on the
issue of ownership limits.
FCC commissioner Michael Copps, one of
two Democrats on the five-member commission, tried to warn the
public about what is at stake with the latest relaxation of rules.
At an unofficial hearing on media consolidation in Los Angeles
on April 28, he said the FCC's decision will impact "everything
we hear and see and read through the media."
Copps stressed the fact that the airwaves
belong to the public. "No one has a God-given right to use
these airwaves for strictly commercial purposes," he said.
While they can be used to run a business, the licenses are granted
on a temporary basis "using public property for primarily
public purposes in behalf of the public interest."
Of course, if Fox were using its licenses
to serve the public interest, then Jane Akre and Steve Wilson
would not have lost their jobs for refusing to deceive the public
on an important public health issue.
"At the very least, if there is no
law, rule or regulation against using the public airwaves to knowingly
present news that is false and distorted, it's time the FCC or
the Congress write one," Wilson said. "Clearly, our
case shows you cannot count on all broadcasters to act ethically
and honestly in reporting the news and putting the public interest
ahead of their own." R
Karen Charman has written frequently for
Extra! on environmental and health issues.