These are the news headlines as read on the Oct. 19, 2007 edition of the mediageek radioshow.
FCC Fines Two Broadcasters for Armstrong Williams’ Fake News
The battle against fake news took a new turn this week when the FCC levied $76,000 in fines against two broadcast companies because they failed to inform viewers that columnist Armstrong Williams was being paid by the US Department of Education for his remarks made on their stations.
In 2003 Williams secretly signed on with the department to promote NO Child Left Behind in exchange for $240,000. He did not reveal this quid pro quo in his subsequent media appearances.
$40,000 of the fines goes to Sonshine Family Television Inc., licensee of WBPH-TV in Bethlehem, Pa., for airing five episodes of “The Right Side with Armstrong Williams.”
Sinlcair Broadcasting, one of the largest owners of TV stations, was hit with $36,000 for airing an episode of “America’s Black Forum” in September of 2004, which also included Williams talking about the legislation. Sinclair owns several TV stations in mediageek’s back yard of central Illinois, including WICD 15 in Champaign and WICS 20 in Springfield.
The FCC says these appearances by Williams constitute a violation of sponsorship identification rules because Williams’ financial relationship was not revealed. For its part, Sinclair told the FCC that the company was not aware of Williams’ deal with the Department of Education. The Commission responds that the fine is justified because the program Sinclair aired was provided as a complete production by Williams and therefore Sinclair was at least obligated to identify that fact.
The FCC’s investigation was spurred on by a complaint filed by the media reform group Free Press along with thousands of additional public complaints.
FCC Chair Martin Pushes Fast Completion of Ownership Review
In other FCC news, it looks like the effort to relax media ownership rules isn’t dead, it’s just sleeping. While the Kevin Martin-led FCC has put a nicer face on its review of media ownership rules than it did under Michael Powell–by holding multiple public hearings on the issue–that doesn’t mean Martin is any less driven to deliver an early Christmas present to consolidation-driven big media.
Martin is reported to be circulating a version of new rules that would greatly relax the newspaper-TV station cross-ownership restrictions, and that he’s pushing to wrap up the rulemaking by mid-December.
The problem with that timetable is that public comments on the FCC’s research reports are due the last week of October, and reply comments are due mid-November. That doesn’t really give the Commission much time to review the thousands of comments from the public before Martin hopes to have the new rules voted on.
It’s very rare that the FCC has only a month or so after the last comments are filed to make a ruling, and it’s even rarer on such a politically important subject as media ownership.
The decision that Martin is pushing for has the potential to devastate the diversity of news reporting in most cities and media markets. By allowing the co-owership of TV stations and newspapers the number of independent newsrooms will dwindle, greatly impacting the number of local stories that get reported on. Major media companies like Tribune have been begging for this change for years. Tribune, especially is really depending on it to seal the deal on its sale to Chicago financier Zell Miller, since the company’s grandfathered exemption of the co-ownership rule for the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV are under review in the sale. But it’s hard to believe that any media giant will be able to resist the cost-cutting benefits of combining and cutting TV and newspaper staffs, despite whatever empty promises they’ll offer the FCC and Congress.
Congress is already weighing in on the news of Martin’s push strategy. Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan and Republican Senator Trent Lott sent a letter to Martin telling him that they do not believe that the FCC “adequately studied the impact of media consolidation on local programming.” They further urged that, “the FCC should not rush forward and repeat mistakes of the past.”
Even pushing against the wishes of congresspeople from both parties, it’s likely that Martin can count on support from the majority Republican commissioners. However, it’s rarely politically advantageous to pass a major regulatory change with a 3 to 2 vote. Some sort of concessions will probably have to be made to the Commission’s two Democrats, who both have been strong critics of relaxing ownership regs.