FCC backs away from election coverage challenge

The FCC received a complaint that 19 television stations in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas failed to provide adequate news coverage during the 2004 elections. The FCC last week, refused to take action against the stations, saying it had “very little authority” to do anything about a licensee’s news coverage.

The complaint came from the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the Media Access Project, representing Chicago Media Action (CMA) and the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition (MPIMC).

The groups argued that less than 1 percent of the stations’ regularly scheduled newscasts and public affairs shows in a one-month period leading up to the November 2004 election were devoted to nonfederal races. “The paucity of coverage of local elections” was inconsistent with the principle of localism that the Communications Act demands, said MAP in its petition.

The FCC responded that journalistic or editorial discretion in the presentation of news and public information is a “core concept” of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. Therefore, the commission “will not review the licensee's news judgments.”

The decision, written under the signature of Barbara A. Kreisman, chief of the FCC Media Bureau’s Video Division, also said the petitions did not provide evidence that the named licensees exercised their editorial discretion in “bad faith,” adding that “quantity is not necessarily an accurate measure of the overall responsiveness of a licensee’s programming.”