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Zappled?
Activists are going after the licenses of two local radio stations.

To anyone who listened to the city’s two biggest talk radio outlets last spring – or even knows them by reputation – it would be no surprise to learn that in the month before the election to recall Gov. Scott Walker, both WTMJ AM-620 and WISN AM-1130 repeatedly promoted Walker’s reelection.

 

What might surprise some is the claim that by doing so, the two stations potentially violated a federal law.

 

How’s that again? Isn’t the Fairness Doctrine dead?

 

It is, but a group challenging the broadcast media as dominated by corporate interests and conservative voices is looking to a different doctrine, one that’s very much alive – and it wants the FCC to pull both stations’ licenses as a consequence.

 

The Media Action Center, started by California broadcaster Sue Wilson and represented locally by Racine County ironworker Randy Bryce, on Tuesday held a news conference to publicize petitions it filed with the FCC Nov. 1 to deny WISN’s and WTMJ’s licenses.

 

“We are asking the FCC to deny those licenses on grounds that they are willfully breaking existing FCC rules during political campaigns, and worse, they are violating the First Amendment rights of members of this community,” Bryce told a small gathering of media and activists outside the WTMJ TV and radio offices on Capitol Drive Tuesday morning.

 

The group’s complaint revolves around the so-called Zapple Doctrine, arising from a 1970 court decision that held licensed broadcast outlets granting free air time in the period before an election to supporters of a major political candidate also had to provide comparable access to supporters of the candidate’s opponent.

 

The MAC quotes a 2008 manual on political broadcasting (PDF) disseminated by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, which advises stations that if one side receives free time in the 60 days before an election, “The Zapple Doctrine requires that the other side also receive free time.”

 

From the day after the recall primary election until the Walker’s election was re-ratified in the June 6 recall vote, MAC activists in Wisconsin listened to both stations and documented comments made for or against Walker, his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, and both the Republican and Democratic parties.

 

Bryce says the monitoring documented repeated praising of Walker and bashing of Barrett by talk radio hosts and their guests – some 80 minutes a week in pro-Walker or pro-GOP commentary, and virtually none for Barrett.

 

“The Scott Walker recall campaign lasted only 28 days. Over that time, I noted that Walker supporters – and only Walker supporters – were allowed on WISN and WTMJ’s microphones to campaign for Scott Walker,” Bryce said. He and others asked the stations to offer “comparable time” for them to be heard in support of Barrett, and Bryce wrote 10 letters to each station, “demanding access to the airwaves to support Barrett,” he said. “WTMJ denied my requests; WISN did not even bother to reply.”

 

The free promotion for Walker during the recall amounted to a “subsidy” of Walker’s campaign worth about $1 million in political advertising, the MAC asserts.

The stations’ one-sided presentations and their responses to the requests for access by Barrett supporters, he said, demonstrate that “WISN and WTMJ management clearly do not have the character to continue operating in our community.”

WISN radio’s program director, Jerry Bott, referred my inquiry about the MAC petition to Market Manager Jeff Tyler, who hasn’t responded. At WTMJ, Journal Broadcast Group Exec VP Steve Wexler said the station would have no comment.

The petition grows out of Wilson’s visit to Wisconsin last year to show her documentary video, Broadcast Blues, that aims to build a media reform movement nationwide.

 

Why does the FCC even weigh in on this at all? History lesson time: The airwaves are deemed to be a limited public resource, so when the agency was created, its brief included not just technical matters like broadcast frequency but also content regulation.

 

But in recent years, and with some exceptions – like the tougher stance on “indecency” after  Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” on national TV – it’s shown less and less appetite for policing content, particularly political content. And that is despite mostly groundless, dark warnings from conservative activists about an imminent revival of the Fairness Doctrine, requiring balance in coverage of public affairs.

 

I’m not a broadcast lawyer and I don’t play one on TV; one lawyer in Wisconsin who I contacted for comment demurred on the grounds that he represents one of the parties.

 

But without for a minute dismissing the philosophical merits of the MAC petition, I’ll be surprised if it gets anywhere.

 

Still, it is at least a novel strategy that the MAC and its supporters are taking. In just a couple of weeks, we may find out whether it turns out to be effective as well.

 

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