By Josh Sterns
The recently released FCC report on “The Information Needs of Communities” focuses a good deal of attention on increasing transparency by government and by broadcasters, who get to use the public airwaves for free. Indeed, the FCC recommended that “disclosure should be a major pillar of FCC media policy.”
The FCC has long recognized that providing communities with locally responsive programming is a “bedrock” obligation of every broadcaster. But to hold broadcasters accountable to this promise both citizens and the FCC need data about how broadcasters claim they are serving local communities
It’s clear from the report that the FCC recognizes that information equals power, and that citizens need more information to judge whether broadcasters are meeting their obligations to serve the public good. Why, then, did we blast the FCC’s recommendations around “enhanced disclosure”?
Unfortunately, when it comes to this essential information we worry that the report has taken us one step forward and two steps back. In the report the FCC suggests shelving an enhanced disclosure form (aka Form 355), which had been approved by a bipartisan vote in the last FCC, and closing the long running “localism” docket which has been addressing how broadcasters serve their communities
In rejecting Form 355 the FCC report suggests that “Broadcasters should be spared make-work paperwork and be relieved of the threat of several potentially burdensome rules.” Instead, the FCC proposes “a streamlined, web-based form focused on a relatively short list of essential data. We agree that starting the process of moving disclosure forms and the public file online is valuable, allowing any member of the public to view critical data and complaints against the station via the web, rather than the unnecessarily burdensome task of going to the station during regular business hours to view the physical copy. We are also encouraged by the FCC’s new focus on the need for political advertising transparency and disclosure of harmful pay-for-play fake news segments in which broadcasters run corporate ads and propaganda disguised as a newscast. Both are issues Free Press has been deeply involved in.
But we are concerned about the narrowing scope of inquiry described in the FCC report. The report's disclosure recommendation is vague, and as is noted throughout the report itself, is non-binding. The devil is— as usual— in the details.
First, though the FCC report supports disclosure of some very critical information, such as local news coverage, Form 355 is undoubtedly more comprehensive than what the FCC report has laid out, and thus more useful to the public and researchers. Though comprehensive, Form 355 is not overly burdensome for broadcasters, regardless of what their lobbyists say. By all accounts broadcasters already maintain programming information for a variety of purposes – including to sell advertising time.
More importantly, Form 355 is already on the books – ready and waiting to be implemented. As a consequence, we fear that the FCC has hamstrung the prompt adoption of good disclosure policies by undermining a rule already in place in exchange for a vague recommendation. It took public interest advocates nearly a decade to get Form 355 adopted. Now the public will have to wait even longer for better and more transparent information about how broadcasters upholding their end of the public interest bargain.