In the last week of December, my employer Media Access Project filed Petition to Deny the television license renewals in the Portland-Salem market in Oregon. As detailed in the Pettition to Deny, the broadcast stations spent only 1% of time in October covering local elections. We argue that this amounts to a complete failure under any standard by these stations, individually and collectively, to meet their obligations to their local viewing areas. (We filed similar Petitions, still pending, against stations in Milwaukee and Chicago.)
Bill Johnstone, spokesman for the Oregon Association of Broadcasters did not dispute the findings of the study on which MAP based the Petition to Deny. Instead, Mr. Johnstone asserted that the the one percent was too much. Mr. Johnstone argued that one percent of time devoted to local political news for the people of Oregaon (or at least, the Salem-Portland market) was “more than our fill.” Indeed, Mr. Johnstone reckons that folks is generally sick of all that politics and news stuff because (and I am not making this up) “Very few politicians can tell the truth.” Mr. Johnstone also opined that it served the puiblic to make broadcast a local-politics free zone because “given everything else that the public has access to — the Internet, the ads they see and hear, the billboards, the unwelcome calls from candidates” the public must be plum sick of news.
This, of course, explains why broadcasters keep dropping the amount of local news available to the public (as documented in places like the Project on Excellence in Journalism). It’s a public service to provide viewers with a refuge from all that unwelcome input from reality.
At least they are no longer relying on the obviously false statement that they are only ”giving the public what they want“ and that ”if people wanted to see more ‘hard news, we’d broadcast that.“ As surveys and analysis continue to show audineces fed up with the lack of news fleeing in droves to other media. No, apparently the public is best served by making the broadcast media a ”safe haven“ from news. And broadcasters are courageously willing to take the hit on audience share to do it!
Now some of you might think that if, as Mr. Johnstone thinks, most politicians can’t tell the truth, that actual journalists might have the job of exposing those lies and challenging these politicians. In fact, if local news programs started doing that regularly, politicians might try lying less and telling the truth more.
Silly people! That is no longer what we rely on ”journalists“ and ”news“ for. According the the FCC, we now rely on such programs and ”Howard Stern,“ the ”Tonight Show,“ and ”Good Morning America.“ Each of these, the FCC has assured us, is a bona fide news program. And, as the broadasters constantly tell us at the FCC, we have the internet now! ”The internet“ amazingly gives us all our news. In fact, as Mr. Johnstone explains, the internet and paid political advertising provide so much news that it falls to the brave broadcast media to provide a ”safe harbor” where we can insulate ourselves from all this inconvenient news by getting updates every five minutes on the latest celebrity scandal, heartwarming pet trick, or desperate family missing their vacation in Disneyworld due to snow in Denver.
So keep hope, people of Portland and Salem Oregon, you’re local broadcasters are looking out for you! If you, like Mr. Johnstone, thought 1% of time covering local politics in 2006 was too much, then sleep easy. We can promise you that, if things keep going as they’re going, you’ll be even safer from accidental exposure to news in 2008.
Or, if you feel different, you can meet the rest of us down at the National Conference on Media Reform this week and help us plan on how to turn things around.
Stay tuned . . . .