Zappled?

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 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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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.