Last Saturday, the LA Times (reg. req.) broke a story regarding the plans of the Sinclair Broadcast Group (owners of 62 television stations in 39 markets) to preempt regularly scheduled programming about a week or so before the presidential election in order to air a film attacking Sen. John Kerry's activism against the Vietnam War (Conservative TV Group to Air Anti-Kerry Film). Such a move is unusual:
"I can't think of a precedent of holding up programming to show a political documentary at a point where it would have the maximum effect on the vote," said Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University's journalism department.
Of course it is unusual. It would be unusual if a major newspaper, magazine, or website made a similar announcement of preemption in order to publish partisan content on behalf of a particular candidate. However, though there might be complaints about the decision to do so, there would likely be little question that the newspaper, magazine, or website had a right to do it.
That is not the case for broadcast:
Still, although broadcast stations are required to provide equal time to major candidates in an election campaign, the Sinclair move may not run afoul of those provisions if Kerry or a representative is offered time to respond. Moreover, several sources said Sinclair had told them it planned to classify the program as news, where the rules don't apply.
Calling it news, however, poses its own problems, said Keith Woods, dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., that teaches professional ethics. "To air a documentary intended to provide a one-sided view of Kerry's record and call it news it's like calling Michael Moore's movie news," he said, adding that the closer to an election that a controversial news report is aired, the "higher the bar has to go" in terms of fairness.
If you don't like what Sinclair is doing, then there are three basic responses to it:
Our Broadcast Regulatory Structure Made Sinclair Possible
- Everybody Should Do It.
If the rightwing is going to broadcast propaganda, then the leftwing should organize the purchase of a network of broadcast stations and broadcast its own propaganda.
Not a terribly satisfying solution, however.
- Government Regulation of Speech.
This can be done either as regulation of broadcast through the FCC or regulation of campaign speech through the FEC.
Either option should concern free speech advocates. Do we really want government commissions to decide what counts as "news" and what doesn't? What is fair and what is not? Does extending the mess of campaign finance reform to include ever more publishers make a lot of sense?
- Change Broadcast Regulation to Eliminate Gatekeepers
Might it possibly be that Sinclair's decisions are merely a symptom of the regulatory structure of broadcast, and that the best way to cure it is to change our regulatory structure? I argue yes.
And I'm not talking about the recent controversy over cross-media ownership that has been the focus of so much attention this past year. I'm talking about the fundamental structure of our broadcast regulatory structure.
I find Reed Hundt's comments to Josh Marshall telling (From Reed Hundt):
If Sinclair wants to disseminate propaganda, it should buy a printing press, or create a web site. These other media have no conditions on their publication of points of view. This is the law, and it should be honored.
Call me crazy, but if most other media is free to publish whatever it wants (something we call freedom of the press), shouldn't our first question be why broadcast gets treated so differently? Why isn't there freedom of the press for broadcast?
Basically, because broadcast is a government-licensed gatekeeper. Imagine if we had a Federal Newspaper Commission that decided who was allowed to publish newspapers in a particular city. Suddenly, we would have calls for a "fairness doctrine" for newspapers and other government regulation of newspaper content.
One might argue that the broadcast airwaves belong to the people and they must be licensed by the government and regulated because of scarcity. Even if there was scarcity, so what? Cellphone companies lease the scarce airwaves as well. Local telephone companies exist in part because of scarce government granted rights of way. Yet, we don't worry about them distributing propaganda, because our regulations have structured their businesses differently, so that these companies don't really care what they distribute. They are common carriers. There is no particular reason why broadcast couldn't be regulated in a similar way.
Hundt spoke of buying a website to distribute propaganda. Well, perhaps we should try to transition broadcast regulations so that broadcast acts more like the internet. Why should the government maintain a medium that requires government content regulation? Shouldn't the government attempt to structure things so that such content regulation is unnecessary?
The real scandal of what Sinclair is doing is not the propaganda, but that so many people seem to readily accept government regulations that create a perceived need for regulation of free speech.