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FCC “Propaganda” Complaint Against Wisconsin Radio Stations Looms Large for Hannity and Limbaugh


Talkers magazine, the “Bible of Talk Radio” reported yesterday on an FCC complaint lodged against two Milwaukee stations for biased coverage of the Scott Walker recall election. Legal affairs editor Steven Weisman cut to the heart of the debate after a Wisconsin radio monitoring group reported crushing pro-Walker imbalance in booking guests, commentary and air time during the critical “election period” preceding Tuesday’s election.

Weisman noted that the right wing talkers must either comply with equal time requests, or qualify as bonafide “news interview” broadcasts. He asks readers:

“…do the shows qualify as news interview programs? The FCC has taken a broad interpretation of the term “news interview program” recognizing that the public gets its “news” from sources that would not previously have been considered to be conventional “news interview programs.” The unwritten standard appears to be that shows where the station and host have the ultimate control over the questions asked during the program can meet the standard of “news interview programs.”

Using this standard, the FCC has granted the exception to such diverse shows as “The Phil Donahue Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Politically Incorrect,” “Sally Jessy Raphael,” “Geraldo” and even both “The Howard Stern Show” and “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Based on these rulings, it seems the FCC hasn’t considered this for quite a while, particularly in the muddy waters of the post-Citizens United era.

Laundering Political Payola Through Ad Buys

New to the debate is the prevalence of superPAC advertising, “charter sponsorship” endorsement deals like the contract forged between the Heritage Foundation and the Hannity and Limbaugh shows, in which “live reads” are easily confused with show content, or show content resembling one-sided “infomercial” time could be considered “in kind contributions” subject to reporting or electioneering laws.

Another crucial issue in recent elections has been bald on-air fundraising for campaigns – exclusive to particular candidates. Controversy over direct contributions to candidates by media figures from Rupert Murdoch to Keith Olbermann has also been making headlines for years.

But despite FCC guidelines condemning bias in broadcasting, we haven’t seen rulings on political talk shows, enforcing equal time during elections. The FCC says it does act to “protect the public interest where it has received documented evidence of such rigging or slanting.”

In this case, the watchdog group documented WTMJ and WISN devoting an average of 120 minutes of pro-Walker or pro-Republican editorializing for every minute of air time in support of Democrats. Weisman continues:

“It would seem then that where the particular show and station used its own discretion to choose the guest on a show and where at least some of the time during its regular programming provided discussions of political matters, the show would come within the “news interview program” exception.

However, if it can be proved as alleged by Sue Wilson and the Media Action Center that these Milwaukee radio stations consistently only interviewed or promoted a single candidate without ever providing air time to his opponent, it is not only possible, but likely that the FCC would not apply the exception and would require equal time for the other candidates.

The FCC rules on this matter may have a significant effect on the upcoming Fall national and state elections.”

Kudos to Talkers for recognizing the ramifications of this – no less than a fight over legalizing domestic propaganda.

This is a serious issue for top-rated radio giants Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, but also hundreds more “template” hosts who cower from open debate, prune callers and book only “compatible” guests.

Unlike GMA or Howard Stern, these market leaders are not “morning shows” or talk, gossip, entertainment or comedy shows, they are almost entirely political and have long influenced the public on elections, wars and every major policy issue by cherrypicking “news”, guests and commentary.

FCC officials discussing this case recently revealed a key factor is determining and evidencing “political intent”, for example the express desire to influence elections. Yet again, the proof is ample – from these talk hosts themselves, from their promos and their executives. Jerry Bott, director of programming and operations at WISN radio in Milwaukee in his own words:

“Hosts on conservative talk radio affect public opinion by making a convincing case that conservative principles are powerful, proper, and effective.

This has an effect on public opinion in areas where conservative talk radio can be heard which, in turn, provides a fertile environment for conservatives seeking public office to be elected.”

Rush Limbaugh was inducted as an “honorary member” of the Republican House Caucus after their 1994 landslide, declaring Rush the single most important contributor to the party’s victory and cementing the link between electoral politics and Limbaugh’s intent.

The Defense For Propaganda is…More Propaganda

We’ve heard bellicose defense of the right to openly broadcast in bias, claiming the First Amendment trumps the public interest. Despite those calling for the right to be intentionally misinformed, the law says if it’s over the publicly owned airwaves, they have to allow the full story to come out.

In filing FCC applications, broadcasters acknowledge that the privilege to use limited public bandwidth comes with a responsibility to allow opportunity for all major candidates to present relevant facts informing political affairs, and specifically to prioritize the public interest over their own interest.

Today’s personality-driven shows clearly include on-air electioneering, yet also claim exemptions carved out for “news interview” shows.

As Sue Wilson of the Media Action Center reminds us, there is a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding of how public airwaves can be used for political “free speech” with the largest talk hosts in the country flouting the Communications Act of 1934 (47 USC Section 315) or “Zapple Doctrine,” which stipulates that in the 60 days prior to an election, broadcasters who provide airtime to one candidates’ views must allow time for the other side if requested.

Over the decades, the FCC has refused to enforce this provision, and the public has been unaware, confused, misled or apathetic to the issue – until now.

A bonafide “news interview” show, according to the law, must be “non-partisan, not supporting any candidates”. This is cut and dry, folks.

Limbaugh and Hannity’s broadcasts clearly segregate “news” reports on the hour from show content. But even if you buy that Hannity’s cavalcade of conservative guests and lopsided caller selections somehow constitute balance, the veneer is shattered in the show’s intro when they tout themselves as “The Stop Obama Express”.

We’ve heard for years that right wing radio is under attack because the left cannot compete in the marketplace. This is a lie so bold, the right disproves it themselves every time the accuse the “mainstream media” of being “in the tank” for the left. It can’t be both, can it?

Many contend that right wing radio is not as profitable as we think, nor a result of free market consumer choice, rather the partisan, pro-corporate voices we hear every day were installed in key markets in order to crystallize public opinion with political messaging. Here, Forbes confirms that Clear Channel’s entire radio broadcasting division is but “a loss leader”.

For starters, Fox News lost hundreds of millions, some $450 million in their first five years. The reason they were able to last and become profitable was because owner Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was willing to bleed so much money.

But it’s even more entangled. From it’s earliest days, News Corp also had incredible help from Wall Street. In the “Black Monday” stock market crash of 1990, News Corp survived by getting extra-awesome sweetheart terms from banks who held off collecting about $7 billion in debt.

Murdoch, known for bartering free publicity for favors became a shill for Wall Street, blurring the line between news and planted PR over the years.

Another myth is that liberal shows are not popular: if you want to call NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition liberal, it’s had ratings comparable to Limbaugh and Hannity for years and years, blasting their “free market” argument to bits.

In fact, the problem with Air America may have been that they relied on corporate America for advertising while NPR is largely listener-supported. How can you expect corporate sponsors to line up if you are reporting on the corrupting influence of industry money in politics?

Former Air America host Rachel Maddow is an example of this. Now the anchor of the MSNBC franchise, her show features paid commercials that promote everything from high-fructose corn syrup to hydrofracking. This proves that sponsors will spend millions on liberal shows, every night.

Does Romney Own Limbaugh and Hannity?

Next we have Bain Capital. As part owner of Clear Channel the syndicator of Limbaugh, Hannity and the other big talk hosts, it’s no wonder they all favor Mitt Romney, Bain’s co-founder who still collects millions every year from Bain in a retirement package.

Bain is a major shareholder in the Clear Channel media behemoth, but Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and RBS are also investors, meaning it’s in talk radio’s interest to broadcast from the capitalist/corporatist point of view and shut down criticism during a crucial election period.

Ironically, Bain and it’s partners even plundered Clear Channel. When Bain and it’s partners acquired Clear Channel in July 2008, they loaded it with unsustainable debt, making it a $20 billion dollar time bomb. By January of 2009, the company laid off 9% of the total workforce, almost 2,000 employees to boost  interest payments to investors. Last October, hundreds more DJs and staff were fired to further cut costs.

Hannity and Limbaugh don’t seem to mind that their company had it’s assets raided, because they are paid for their political impact, not their profitability. Clear Channel’s profit centers are big market music stations, while 38-station affiliates like Cumulus lose millions on the Rush Limbaugh Show.

The programs we watch and hear are the result of decades of media consolidation and industry lobbying, reducing competitiveness, localization and diversity in a highly manipulated marketplace. This is not about the defunct Fairness Doctrine or censorship, this is about the rights of citizens to challenge and rebut lies, distortions and manipulations made over public US airwaves. Are we for or against propaganda?

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