The radio industry magazine Radio Ink caught wind of my recent article, "Tell the FCC: Talk Radio is NOT 'Bonafide News'", as published at The BRAD BLOG, (and subsequently reprinted by the Huffington Post.)
As might be expected by an industry with a long track record of willfully misinforming the public, perhaps it is not surprising that Radio Ink --- which bills itself as "Radio's Premier Management & Marketing Magazine" --- would wildly mischaracterize not only the piece I wrote, but the legal underpinnings of the case which is helping to bring the question of what comprises "Bonafide News" to the forefront.
In other words, rather than challenge my actual argument or what I actually wrote or what is in our published legal filings, the unbylined Radio Ink article simply made up a straw man --- she wants to "stifle" and "silence" and "censor" Talk Radio by "government mandate"! --- and then knocked it handily down. That is, of course, what they do in Talk Radio.
Let's start with Radio Ink's first words (I wish I could tell you the author, but he/she remains anonymous): "The Huffington Post is helping the Media Action Center promote the organizations [sic] attempt to stifle the long success of Talk Radio, mainly Rush Limbaugh, and put pressure on radio stations to let them on the air via government mandate."
What a loaded sentence. But let's start unpacking.
Yes, Huffington Post printed my oped on their pages, (as did The BRAD BLOG). Printing well-researched stories is what online news outlets do. But Radio Ink is apparently not an online news outlet, in that sense, so they may not be familiar with how they work. Instead, they insinuate some kind of collusion between my organization, Media Action Center (MAC) and HuffPo. They do it with good cause: they are creating a meme for the entire talk radio industry --- and its helpful sycophant echo chamber on the Right --- to follow. First, they name a left wing bogey man (HuffPo!), then they completely misstate my organization's objective, which is not to "silence" anyone, but rather, to fight to not allow anyone to be silenced over our public airwaves. Finally, they bring forward the oft-repeated, knee-jerk cant that we want a "government mandate" to allow the collective us onto the airwaves --- the airwaves that we all own.
Absolutely none of that is accurate or true, or even close to what my article was about. But that's "talk radio" in written form apparently. Which leads me to ask this: Why does Radio Ink and its followers hate the rule of law?...
Radio Ink has little choice but to respond the way they did; if they responded to the actual case MAC presented to them --- which argues, with painstakingly documented data, compiled during the historic 2012 recall elections in Wisconsin, that WTMJ's programming is not "bonafide" news because, according to FCC rules, news must not have political intent --- they would have to explain why, for example, they are backing the argument that Rush Limbaugh is no different from Walter Cronkite. That's the crux of the argument actually being made by Wisconsin radio station WTMJ when their attorneys argue that their Rightwing radio hosts who spend hours over our public airwaves pimping for specific candidates of one party (while disallowing all requests from opposing candidates and their surrogates to respond in any way over those same public airwaves) are allowed to do so. Their programs are not merely "talk" or "opinion", they argue, but "bonafide news" which, according to FCC doctrine, does not require equal (or any) time for those who may have a differing viewpoint.
That argument presents a very serious problem for an industry which has too often (and illegally) used our publicly-owned airwaves to promote candidates of just one political party. So the industry mag is coming up with something, anything, to repeat repeat repeat --- so that readers, listeners, and perhaps the federal regulators themselves, will believe it. Or, they surely hope, they will be cowed into taking no action, and continue to disregard the law.
Next comes Radio Ink's hastily-written whitewash:
"Programming disagreements." It's a simple term which implies that MAC is insisting it wants to hear, say, Brad Friedman on the air, rather than Rush Limbaugh. While that might be swell, it has absolutely nothing to do with our case now pending in front of the FCC or the arguments we actually offered in our legal filing or in any of the many articles we've written over the years in support of it. But it sure sounds insidious, doesn't it? And notice that Radio Ink doesn't even have the courage or decency to link to MAC's legal petition to deny, but only to WTMJ's response to it. Classy stuff. But when you've got no actual argument, the best thing to do is try to hide that fact any way you can, I guess.
But this is not about "programming disagreements," this is about the subversion of democracy. The case they work so hard to mischaracterize, rather than refute, is based on a study which proved that WTMJ's talk shows provided nearly 80 minutes a day --- every day --- to guests who were supporters of Gov. Scott Walker during his contentious recall election in the Badger State one year ago. At the same time, station management refused to allow any supporters of his opponent, Tom Barrett, on the air to be heard at all.
The only way Barrett supporters could be heard over those publicly-owned airwaves in the weeks prior to one of the most important elections of last year, would be to buy time. That would have cost them about $36,000 per day, if they hoped to equal the amount of free time afforded Walker's supporters by WTMJ.
In other words, WTMJ, using the license granted to them by our federal government in exchange for their promise to serve "the public interest" over our limited public airwaves, provided GOP surrogates of Walker about $720,000 worth of free air time over those airwaves. At the same time, as Barrett supporters very politely requested time to respond (not to "stifle" or "silence" anyone, but simply to respond) they were met with emails like this, from WTMJ station manager Steve Wexler:
We understand that not all listeners will agree with every opinion or statement made on the station. However, we are neither able, nor is it legally required, to provide each listener who disagrees with a statement made on the station the opportunity to appear on the station and express his or her opinion.
Thank you again for providing us with your thoughts.
Executive Vice President
Journal Broadcast Group
720 E. Capitol Dr.
Direct Line: [redacted]
Direct Fax: (414) 967-5596
In other words, Wexler told Barrett supporters to shut up and go away, and made a precarious legal argument in doing so. So, really, who is "stifling" and "silencing" whom in this matter?
Radio Ink then goes on to cite Radio Ink contributor, attorney John Garziglia to agree with them --- dishonestly and hyperbolically. They report that Garziglia believes "The Media Action Center Petition to Deny, and its blog posting, is a misinformed hyperbolic attempt to have the government use its licensing processes to silence a speaker with whom MAC disagrees."
Then they bring in the big guns, the "C"-word!: "Thankfully," Garziglia is quoted, "the FCC has not shown the propensity to engage in such censorship, at least for political speech."
Did Garziglia --- an attorney, after all --- even bother to take the time to read the background material he is commenting on? Or is he just pulling out his scariest big words in hopes of trumping up an argument to avoid having to make a legal one?
Of course, MAC is not trying to "silence" or "censor" anyone. Nowhere in either our formal complaint or the Petition to Deny can anyone find ANY reference to such intent. Instead, MAC is working to give voice to all of those who WTMJ has provably silenced. What they are doing, demonstrably, IS censorship, according to none other than the Supreme Court of these United States, which found in Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC, 1969: "The First Amendment does not protect private censorship by broadcasters who are licensed by the Government to use a scarce resource which is denied to others."
Surely, an attorney who works in the radio industry --- even in a radio industry trade magazine --- is familiar with a case as notable as that one, right?
The Media Action Center is fighting for the First Amendment rights of ALL of us, not just the favored few of WTMJ. That station (and WISN, also under challenge) and all radio talk shows may, of course, continue using our public airwaves to carry out their political advocacy, just as they do now, so long as others are allowed to do THEIRS as well over the same publicly-owned airwaves. It's both fair and --- if the FCC bothers to enforce it --- the law.
Finally, Radio Ink write this:
At last, we agree! Incredibly, Garziglia is making almost the exact argument we are! Had he bothered to read it, he might have learned as much. Instead, he seems to have been misled by the anonymous person who penned Radio Ink's response and decided to play John Garziglia for a sucker in the bargain. Equal opportunities are afforded by law to candidates, and also by FCC rule to surrogates of candidates. Garziglia knows that, but the Radio Ink readers do not.
What's most interesting to me is that this piece comes from an industry magazine, read by station managers and owners, among others. Were I a station manager or owner, I would want to know the facts of the case and the law so I could direct my staff and programming accordingly. But this piece just warms over old Rightwing talking points without bothering to address the main point of my original article: that WTMJ is trying to wriggle out of its responsibility to the community and to the law by claiming its talk radio shows are "bonafide news."
Given their response --- and the disinformed Rightwing knee-jerkery it has now inspired across the web, from the likes of Brian Sikma at Media Trackers ("Liberals Pressure Obama Admin to Muzzle Wisconsin Talk Radio") and Marshall Keith at People's Republic of Madison ("The Queen of Censorship is Back"!) --- it's no surprise that these folks would have no clue about what "bonafide news" actually is.
• Sign the petition to Tell the FCC: Talk Radio is NOT Bonafide News!
Sue Wilson is a media activist, director of Public Interest Pictures' Broadcast Blues, and a 22 year veteran of broadcast journalism. Her numerous awards include Emmy, AP, RTNDA, and PRNDI for work at CBS, PBS, FOX, and NPR. She is the editor of the media criticism blog, Sue Wilson Reports and founder of the Media Action Center.