Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer License to Ill?

By Jim Hanas

MARCH 16, 1998:  Is local television news making us sick? Not just sick to ourstomachs or sick of endless self-promotion, but sick as a society?

It is according to Paul Klite, executivedirector of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch (RMMW). Last month, the Denver-based watchdoggroup filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to denybroadcast-license renewals to four Denver television stations: KWGN, KCNC, KMGH, and KUSA.As Klite observes in a press release announcing the petitions, “Night after nightaudiences are terrified and titillated, aroused and manipulated, but not informed. Like anunbalanced diet, which gradually can lead to serious illness, the local TV news threatensthe health of our community.”

The petitions are based on “contentanalyses” carried out by the group that found the news programming on the fourstations to be “severely unbalanced, with excessive reporting of violent topics andtrivial stories and, consequently, inadequate news coverage of a wider range of storiesand vital social issues, including local elections, the arts, science, education, theenvironment, AIDS, children, and others.”

In other words, the petitions are aimed atthe sensationalism and other “entertainment techniques” that Klite thinksinterfere with responsible news coverage.

As a remedy, the organization is asking theFCC to require the stations to improve their newscasts, air public-service announcementsabout the “harmful side-effects” of television news, incorporate media literacyprograms into their schedules, instruct staff on the effects of media violence, andimprove coverage of local elections.

Naturally, broadcast-industry insiders arecrying foul, arguing that the petitions are attempts to censor the news.

“[Involving] the FCC in determiningnews content is not something anyone in America wants to see,” says Barbara Cochran,president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “We think it’svery alarming that they think the solution is to get the government involved.”

Don Fitzpatrick, a consultant and editor ofShop Talk, a widely read industry newsletter, agrees, “I look at it ascensorship,” he says. “Anytime a group – whether it’s a watchdoggroup, the government, or an individual – says you shouldn’t be covering thatkind of news, it’s against the First Amendment.”

Klite disagrees. “We’ve gone outof our way to make sure that the remedies we are asking for do not interfere with thebroadcasters’ First Amendment rights,” he insists. “There’s thepeople’s First Amendment rights and there’s the broadcasters’ FirstAmendment rights, and sometimes they conflict.”

Saying newscasters should cover localelections, after all, is quite a bit different from saying they should not cover unpopularpolitical causes. And the FCC’s charge is to regulate the airwaves in the“public interest.” Not to mention the fact that Fitzpatrick’s blanket FirstAmendment statement would render newscasts completely impervious to criticism.

Roger Ogden – president and generalmanager of Denver’s KUSA – says such criticism is productive.

“We solicit pretty aggressively, everyday, feedback from our viewers,” he says. “We’re never immune to criticism,and we understand that we can make our product better.”

Ogden also says he believes that thepetitions were filed just to bring attention to the issue. “I don’t think it hasmuch merit at the [FCC] level,” he says.

And bring attention they have; not just tothe four Denver stations, but to the public responsibilities of television news generally.It’s easy to forget that broadcasters lease the airwaves from the public. Broadcastlicenses come up for renewal every eight years, at which time the public can comment onwhether or not renewals should be granted. Call it censorship or whatever you like, butactivism like RMMW’s is provided for by current regulations.

The Denver stations now have time torespond to the petitions, after which RMMW will be allowed a rebuttal. Klite admits,however, that the petitions have led into uncertain legal territory.

“License challenges are kind of a rarething these days,” he says.

If disaffection with the media continues togrow, however, they might become more common. Memphis-area licenses, by the way, were renewed last year and won’t come up again until 2005.

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