What Media Democracy Looks Like: Testifying in Milwaukee

FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein"Media democracy" is a term that everyone defines a little differently.

Is it quality reporting that not only informs about local, national and international issues, but also facilitates citizen involvement? Is it having the diversity of our communities represented among media owners? Is it giving local programmers access to the airwaves? Is it holding broadcasters to the terms of their freely-granted licenses? Is it ensuring a variety of news and cultural media offerings?

One thing's for sure -- what happened last Thursday in Milwaukee was media democracy in action. More than 300 people attended the Town Meeting on the Future of the Media, which was organized by the media reform group Free Press and co-sponsored by the Center for Media and Democracy. The event gave attendees the opportunity to tell Federal Communications Commission members Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps how well the media are serving their communities.

The following excerpted remarks are from members of the public and expert panelists who testified in Milwaukee:

A very prominent radio host attacked the Latino community, engaged in misinformation and slanderous remarks. ... One of the biggest misrepresentations that [Mark Belling of WISN-AM] put out there, and that Clear Channel never, ever corrected, was the notion that many of the undocumented Hispanics that live in the city of Milwaukee would be voting in the [2004] presidential elections.

TV local news, for example, is increasingly irrelevant -- unless it bleeds, unless it's the [Green Bay] Packers, unless it's the next snowstorm. There's not much about our county budget, our candidates, what's going on in Madison on the news. ... This Tuesday there's going to be a primary. ... If you watch local news, if you read the major paper, I would guess most people don't have a clue as to who's running. ... Why would you go to vote in the primary if you don't think that there is a race?

For many of us -- for African-Americans, other people of color, women -- [media consolidation is] a discussion that we don't have very often ... certainly not before commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission. ... Many in this business awaken every morning in search of new outlets to consume, new TV and radio stations, newspapers and other publications they can own. For these people, it's just business. They don't see the harm they do to the community they're licensed to serve. In fact, many of the people who own media outlets never set foot, much less live, in the communities.

Wisconsin is in the midst of the biggest political corruption scandal in our state's history [in which former state legislators and staffers have been convicted for directing public resources to political campaigns]. ... If you go into the capitol press room today, look around the door to the left, there's a bank of slots where people can put press releases and information for news organizations. Half of those slots are now covered with duct tape, because there are no news organizations for those slots anymore. Milwaukee used to have two competing daily newspapers ... [which] devoted a dozen people to covering the state capital. ... The merged Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel now devotes three people to covering the capital.

Low-power FM radio must be supported, expanded and protected. Why? Because media consolidation must stop and moreover be rolled back, in favor of localism and diversity. ... The de facto replacement of public interest with corporate interest as the effective rationale for media regulation and use must also be turned back. ... The highest good for people in a democracy requires discourse and diversity in ideas, information and cultural expression.

The proposed changes in the rules and regulations governing media ownership would, if adopted, have profound affects on who has access to the media, whose voices are heard, whose values are articulated. ... The basic moral test of any policy is how it affects the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. How will facilitating the concentration of media ownership in the hands of large corporations ... affect the voices of people who don't own stock, whose power and impact as consumers is limited, who have yet to cross the digital divide?

This is an important mid-term election. ... There appears to be a pattern of barring [media] access to candidates from any party other than the Republican and Democratic parties. ... In Wisconsin, we have significant gubernatorial and senatorial elections in November. ... We have strong Green Party candidates who have something to say but are being denied the opportunity to appear on Wisconsin Public Television debates.

Is this news? (Read the article at: www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr3)That so many people participated in the town meeting illustrates widespread frustration with the current state of the media -- and an understanding that improving media access, news quality and accountability to communities is key.

That FCC Commissioners Adelstein and Copps traveled to Milwaukee and listened to hours of public testimony illustrates their commitment to, in Adelstein's words, "protect citizens' access to a wide range of news information and programming, including diverse viewpoints."

I also testified in Milwaukee, on video news releases and media consolidation. Here's my full statement:

I want to thank Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, for coming to Milwaukee, for working to bring public input into these important media policy decisions, and for making sure that there was an investigation -- the first-ever investigation into undisclosed video news releases, which was launched by the FCC last month.

Video news releases, or VNRs, are the most widespread deceptive practice in television, which remains the number one information source in the United States. Public relations firms make VNRs for their clients -- both government agencies and corporations -- and the segments look and sound exactly like television news reports. However, the people that appear in these VNRs, the soundbites, and even the scenery are carefully chosen to convey the client's message -- not to convey the truth of the matter.

Yet television stations routinely air VNRs. These stations are not serving their communities. What they're doing is serving hidden interests by airing advertisements and propaganda that's being disguised as "news."

For over a year, I've been monitoring VNR usage, as part of my research at the Center for Media and Democracy. I didn't go into the project with a very high opinion of TV news, to be honest, but I continue to be shocked by the blatant disregard of journalistic ethics, as well as the apparent breaches of U.S. law that we've documented.

In a report we released this April, the Center for Media and Democracy documented 77 television stations across the United States that had aired VNRs or related materials. Not one time did the TV station tell its audience what these segments were or who had paid to have them produced.

I want to focus on one example tonight, that of WVTV-18, both because it's here in Milwaukee and because it exemplifies the inter-related problems of video news releases, of media consolidation, and failure to serve local communities.

In its newscast on October 28, 2005, WVTV aired a segment on how to plan a fun and safe Halloween for your children. The story featured self-proclaimed "lifestyle expert" Julie Edelman, who mentioned name-brand candies and flower arrangements.

That segment was a VNR. It was paid for by M&M / Mars and 1-800-Flowers. Julie Edelman herself is an expert-for-hire. She appears in VNRs regularly, every time promoting the products of the companies that, coincidentally, paid to have that segment produced and promoted to television newsrooms.

WVTV-18 aired the complete VNR, even leaving in the voice of the publicist, the PR professional who was playing reporter. No disclosure was given to the Milwaukee audience.

In retrospect, this incident appears to be part of WVTV's decreasing commitment to news. In August 2005, the station shortened its newscast, from one hour to just thirty minutes. WVTV was one of seven WB stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group to reduce news programming at the time, to (quote) "improve performance and profitability," according to Sinclair.

In March 2006, WVTV canceled its lone newscast. Two other Sinclair stations that we documented airing VNRs -- one in Pittsburgh and one in Raleigh -- have also since stopped providing any news. In Sinclair's 2005 annual report, CEO David Smith estimated that decreased news programming and news sharing arrangements, which many of its stations have, would boost the company's cash flow that year by five million dollars.

Providing real, independently reported news may not be the most profitable thing to do, but in a democracy that information is essential, as we've heard again and again tonight. Therefore, I want to urge the FCC, upon completion of its investigation, to strongly sanction all TV stations that have aired VNRs without disclosure, and also to strengthen the current disclosure requirements.

Lastly, since large media conglomerates own more than 80 percent of the TV stations that we documented airing VNRs, I urge the FCC to investigate the connection between media consolidation and VNR usage before any relaxation of the restrictions on media consolidation.

Thank you.