Broadcasters Hammered on Hill

Broadcasters were getting pounded from both sides on the Hill Wednesday. When Republicans weren't bemoaning the decline of standards, Democrats were railing against bias and monopoly.

The House of Representatives took aim at media consolidation, Armstrong Williams' payments, Sinclair's news decisions, the Department of Education, Rupert Murdoch, campaign coverage, advocacy ads, Viagra spots, and a lot more in a heated debate of the rule governing debate on the House indecency bill, which was scheduled for a vote Wednesday.

Several members had attempted to add amendments, including reinstituting the fairness doctrine, rolling back media consolidation, and even delaying erectile dysfunction ads until after 10 p.m. The Republican majority ruled them non-germane, restricting the debate to the indecency fines.

Similar amendments helped kill the same bill last year, and House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is trying to keep it free of similar poison pills.

Democrats accused Republicans of protecting corporate media giants and their sometimes biased broadcasts by excluding debate on consolidation and other issues. Of course, the debate over that controversial rule became the opportunity to raise all those issues.

On the bill itself, Tom Cole (R-Okla.), decried the fact that "some in media are willing to pay fines to air what millions of Americans find offensive." He called the bill a good "first step," adding that no family should be exposed to some of the content regularly aired on television."

Several members, including Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Rush Holt (D-N.J., Diane Watson (D-Calif.), and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) called for the re-imposition of the fairness doctrine, saying indecency shouldn't be confined to swearing on sitcoms and skin during sweeps, but to bias and slanted coverage.

Slaughter said that refraining from indecency (she actually said obscenity) isn't the same as fulfilling public interest obligations and said that declining standards of fairness and truth are a bigger indecency.

News people passing off political opinion as news, that's indecent, she said, or "paying to advocate opinions on the public airwaves without disclosure, "I call that indecent," she said. "One-sided documentaries designed to impact an election without equal time [a reference to the flap over a Sinclair news show]. That's indecent and dangerous."
California Democrat Lynn Woolsey called the debate incomplete without consideration of the fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues.
The axing of that doctrine in 1987 is generally considered to have paved the way for the rise in conservative talk radio. "It is not good enough to hold  broadcasters accountable for wardrobe malfunctions," she said. "They must live up to the public good.... Media monopolies are free to use their power to present only one side of the story."
Calling media consolidation a threat to "cherished free speech values," she said that allowing corporations to monopolize the media  "gives people like [News Corp. Chairman] Rupert Murdoch too much power."
Some members said they were changing their vote on the bill. Last year's bill got virtually unanimous bipartisan support before some Democrats began rethinking giving the government greater control over speech. They were helped by some dissenting voices, including veteran children's TV advocate Peggy Charren, who pointed out that shows like Antiques Roadshow and Mystery were starting to self-censor in the face of the FCC indecency crackdown.Barney Frank (D-N.J.) and independent Bernie Sander of Vermont will now vote against upping the fines, saying they were concerned about growing censorship. But they also called "censorship" the refusal of the majority to open the debate to include consolidation and its effect on content.

Frank said the furor over indecency that last year's failed bills helped engender has led to self-censorship. He said that parents, not the majority party, are the main protectors of children. But Frank also said there was a greater danger: "The censorship of free and open debate."

Pointing to what he said was the Department of Education's pressure on PBS to drop a an episode of a kids show featuring lesbian parents, Frank, who is gay, said: "I guess they would want me bleeped or blanked out too."

"I am glad I have a chance to vote against this bill," he said, "but sad that the majority says it is inappropriate to discuss consolidation."

David Price (D-N.C.) said he was forming a Media Reform Caucus to bring up the issue of consolidation and its effect on the "filth on the airwaves" when the House takes up its planned rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. "You haven't heard that last from us," he said.

At press time, the rule was still being debated, with debate on the actual bill restricted to an hour and 20 minutes.

That did not sit well with Barney Frank, who said the majority was repressing minority opinion, advising Iraq's new provisional assembly not to take this as an example of the treatment of minority views. "Don't try this at home," he advised them.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.