When Franklin Roosevelt and the first New Deal Congress faced the question of how best to organize broadcasting on the public airwaves, they enacted the federal Communications Act of 1934. That law brought into the modern age the principle that had underpinned the “freedom of the press” protection in the first amendment to the Constitution: that a competitive and responsible media was essential to the healthy functioning of a democracy.
Though the airwaves belonged to the people, private owners would be allowed to broadcast on particular frequencies. Ownership would be diverse, competition would be encouraged and all who used the people’s airwaves would be required to do so in the public interest.
Over the ensuing decades, the radio and television airwaves have been colonized by ever more powerful corporate interests. Media conglomerates have used their economic power – a power obtained through their exploitation of the people’s airwaves – to hire lobbyists and secure ever more favorable federal rules and regulations. Slowly, the civic and democratic values that were intended to guide broadcasting have been replaced by commercial and entertainment values.
The duty to inform the public about the political processes of the Republic, which once was considered the essential responsibility of the recipient of a broadcast license, has been abandoned. The amount of news coverage of state and local elections is in decline, while television stations cede the political discussion to paid advertising.
How bad has the circumstance become?
In the month before this year’s mid-term elections, local television news viewers received dramatically more information about the candidates and their campaigns from paid political advertisements than from news coverage, a just-completed University of Wisconsin-Madison NewsLab study concludes.
Local newscasts in seven Midwest markets aired 4 minutes, 24 seconds of paid political ads during the typical 30-minute broadcast while dedicating an average of 1 minute, 43 seconds to election news coverage.
Even the miniscule amount of attention that was paid to electioneering by the news departments of local television stations in markets spread across some of the key battleground states of the Midwest was warped. According to the analysis, “most of the news coverage of elections on early and late-evening broadcasts was devoted to campaign strategy and polling, which outpaced reporting on policy issues by a margin of more than three to one (65 percent to 17 percent).”
What makes these figures all the more troubling is the fact that, while local television stations are clearly failing to provide adequate coverage of the most basic functions of democracy, they continue to be the primary source of information for voters. In other words, the great majority of citizens who rely on television news for the healthy diet of information that is needed in order to cast informed votes are being starved by station owners who are more interested in collecting revenues from political advertisers than in meeting the responsibilities of a broadcast license holder.
How should citizens respond? There are two necessary actions:
1.) The data gathered by the UW researchers should be employed in broader efforts by citizen groups to challenge the renewal of broadcast licenses for communications corporations that are failing to serve the communities in which they own stations. These challenges are legitimate and they should be pursued aggressively. For more information, visit www.freepress.net
2.) Federal and state legislators should take up proposals to require commercial television and radio stations to provide free air time to all serious candidates as a means to counter the influence of commercials and, hopefully, to energize the news coverage of campaigns. For more on this, visit the website of the national campaign, endorsed by Walter Chronkite and others, visit www.freeairtime.org and www.campaignlegalcenter.org
John Nichols is the co-founder with Robert W. McChesney of Free Press, the national media reform network. Nichols and McChesney are the co-authors of many books on media policy, including Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy, which is just out in paperback from The New Press.