So I was poking around a bit on the FCC website today, trying to come up with some more information about their regulation of calls to action. The closest I was able to come up with was the 1986 Commission Policy Concerning the Noncommercial Nature of Educational Broadcasting, in which announcements by and about underwriters and donors are covered:
B. Announcements containing a call to action are not permissible. Examples of such announcements are:
— “Stop by our showroom to see a model”;
— “Try product X next time you buy oil.”
There’s also some information about the regulation of political speech in the 1999 The Public and Broadcasting policy:
Personal Attacks. Personal attacks occur when, during the presentation of views on a controversial issue of public importance, someone attacks the honesty, character, integrity, or like personal qualities of an identified person or group. No more than a week after a personal attack, the station must transmit the following three things to the person or group attacked: (1) notification of the date, time, and identification of the broadcast; (2) a tape, script or accurate summary of the attack; and (3) an offer of a reasonable opportunity to respond on the air.
Political Editorials. A political editorial is when a station endorses or opposes a legally qualified candidate(s) during a broadcast of its own opinion. (The opinions of other people broadcast over the station are referred to as “comments” or “commentary”). Whether a statement of opinion is an editorial or a commentary will usually be made clear at the beginning of the statement. Within 24 hours after the editorial, the station must transmit the following three things to the other qualified candidate(s) for the same office, or to the candidate(s) that were opposed: (1) notification of the date and time of the editorial; (2) a script or tape of the editorial; and (3) an offer of a reasonable opportunity for the candidate or a spokesperson for the candidate to respond on the air.
Perhaps coincidentally, just as I was doing this poking around, I received an email message from the MoveOn folks, discussing the Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s recent decision to force its affiliates to air a piece of anti-Kerry propaganda in the days leading up to the election. This is of course not Sinclair’s first offense against the airwaves; in April, the conglomerate demanded that its affiliates pre-empt Nightline’s tribute to the U.S. troops who lost their lives in Iraq. What’s different in this case is that the broadcast of this explicitly partisan film appears to be in direct violation of federal election laws — and worse, Sinclair simply doesn’t care.
So, what can be done? Some are talking about boycotts, both of Sinclair stations and of their advertisers. But the FCC gives us a more direct mode of protest — the complaint.
Sinclairwatch.org, a project of Free Press, makes it possible for you, in four easy steps, to find out if one of your local stations is a Sinclair affiliate, to gather information about how that affiliate is or is not serving the public interest, and to file an informal objection with the FCC, if you see fit. Such complaints become part of the public record, and must be considered when Sinclair’s broadcast licenses come up for renewal.
When my local college radio station has to avoid all calls to action for fear of losing their license, but a large media conglomerate is free to violate federal law simply because it can afford any potential fine, something has gone radically wrong with our regulatory system. We must require the FCC to serve its function — to ensure the fair use of the public’s airwaves.