Broadcast Bullies?

(Update: on February 24, 2010 Representative Walden announced he was stepping down from the House Commerce Committee, thus mitigating any conflict of interest he might have in championing the broadcast industry’s cause in Congress.  See John Eggerton, “Former Broadcaster Walden Takes Leave Of Absence From Key House Committee,” Broadcasting & Cable, February 24, 2010.)

The relationship between Oregon broadcasters and their local members of Congress may not be what it appears to be.  Journalists should report on it, and new public policies should be implemented to facilitate their doing so.

Now that the TV broadcast industry has once again not only dodged any accountability for its gross misuse of the public’s spectrum, but also positioned itself for yet another huge spectrum windfall, it’s time for some enterprising reporter to explain how this feat was pulled off.  If journalists can cover the GM bailout in depth, surely some attention should be given to the much larger giveaway to the broadcast industry—not to mention the incalculable harm to the American people through the accompanying delay in the provision of much needed wireless broadband service.  I suggest a good starting point for investigation might be the relationship between Oregon’s local broadcasters and the politicians they cover (and intimidate).

A Preface on Broadcaster Power

Why do public officials from both political parties fear to ask the most obvious questions concerning broadcasters’ inefficient use of a public asset worth more than $150 billion?  Why is it that again and again public officials’ only policy response to the misuse of this public asset is to suggest that more of it be given to the broadcast industry, which includes some of the largest and most profitable companies in the world?  I suggest that intimidation by local broadcasters may be the answer.

How do broadcasters intimidate members of Congress?  It’s certainly not as a result of the quality of their arguments (the subject of which is the main focus of BroadcastBandBullsh?t.info).  In my judgment and the judgment of many others, it’s a result of local broadcasters’ ability to serve as a gatekeeper between members of Congress and their constituents  (for details, see my book: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: How Local TV Broadcasters Exert Political Power).  But not all local broadcasters are equally aggressive or effective in using their control over media to intimidate politicians.  What I’m suggesting here is that if one wants to understand the current processes by which local broadcasters’ intimidate politicians with the goal of erecting barriers to competition and winning vast giveaways of public resources at public expense, Oregon might be a good place to investigate.

Why Oregon?

Two easy to observe and verify facts that stick out about the relationship between Oregon broadcasters and politicians are that 1) the current president of the National Association of Broadcasters, Gordon Smith, was a former U.S. Senator from Oregon, and 2) today’s most outspoken member of Congress on behalf of broadcasters, Representative Greg Walden, was a former broadcaster.  This hints at a private relationship between Oregon’s local broadcasters and members of Congress that, if exposed to light, would cause shame.

Gordon Smith. The president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) serves as the bully-boy-in-chief  for the local broadcasting industry.  Smith came to the job soon after he left office as U.S. senator from Oregon, a job he won after serving as a U.S. representative from Oregon.  Smith didn’t get appointed to be NAB’s head because of a newfound religion supporting free TV.  He got the job, in part, because his work on behalf of local broadcasters as a member of Congress demonstrated to broadcasters that he could be trusted.  Since Smith served on the committee that oversees broadcasters, the broadcasters had plenty of information to go by.  In an interview with the broadcast industry trade press, Smith himself summarizes his relationship with local broadcasters as follows: “I fell in love with broadcasters as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.”     But why would Smith, a free market conservative, fall in love with an industry that devotes most of its lobbying firepower arguing on behalf of anticompetitive regulations and government handouts for the TV broadcast industry?

Did Smith receive loads of contributions from the local broadcast industry?  Did broadcasters in his political district mobilize a grassroots army on his behalf?  These are the usual explanations when a member of Congress acts against his own ideological principles on behalf of a well-organized and resource rich interest group.   But local broadcasters have a reputation for being campaign contributor cheapskates and shunning the game of grassroots politics.  These explanations thus fail to explain Smith’s inconsistency.

Greg Walden. Walden, a Representative from Oregon who serves on the committee responsible for overseeing broadcast industry regulations and public subsidies, has recently become the broadcasters’ bully-in-chief within Congress.  Walden, like Smith, is a free market conservative taken to mouthing the sacred wonders of free TV.   How can this inconsistency be explained?  Again, local broadcaster campaign contributions and grassroots support don’t appear to be of much help.   The fact that sticks out for Walden  is that he inherited a chain of rural Oregon radio stations from his dad.   Walden Sr. was a state representative and broadcast station owner before Walden Jr. began his political career.  Walden Jr. also started as a state representative and then was elected to Congress in 1998.  In 2007, he sold his chain of radio stations for $2.8 million at the peak of the market.  Did the radio stations bolster both Walden, Sr’s and Walden, Jr’s political careers?  If so, how?  The major impact of Walden Jr’s sale of broadcast stations is that he now appears emboldened to come out publicly as a champion of broadcast industry interests.  Previously, he seems to have been worried that such public statements would be criticized as s conflict of interest.

Other current House members who served either as broadcast reporters or owners include Dan Maffei (D-NY), Parker Griffith (D-AL), Mike Pence (R-IN.), and Harold Rogers (R-KY).

What we have with Walden and Smith is the appearance of a crack in the firewall between media interests and political activity, with Walden wearing the hat of media owner and political advocate simultaneously and Smith sequentially (although in Smith’s case, he is serving as chief lobbyist for the broadcast media industry, not as an owner). Walden’s radio stations were covering public affairs while Walden was pursuing a political career, while Smith went from being covered by local broadcast stations to serving the owners of those stations.

Broadcast Politics in Small vs. Large Markets

Oregon has the classic TV market configuration that bolsters the political power of local broadcasters.   As a rule, as the ratio of  members of Congress to local TV markets decreases, the power of local broadcasters increases.  This is because small market TV stations can cover local members of Congress and their political opponents in much more depth without alienating their audiences.  This, in turn, leads to a more symbiotic relationship between members of Congress and local broadcasters.

The Oregon delegation to Congress has seven members, including two U.S. Senators and five representatives, spread out over multiple local TV markets.   Contrast this to the New York City metropolitan area, which covers 33 U.S. House districts and 6 U.S. Senate districts (New Jersey, which overlaps the New York City and Philadelphia TV markets, doesn’t even have a single exclusive local TV market).   As a result, the ratio of members of Congress to local TV markets is approximately ten times higher in New York City than Oregon.

Often, the only way a U.S. representative in the New York City metropolitan area can get on his local TV station is by being the center of a career threatening scandal.  Those living in the other 32 U.S. House districts just aren’t interested in hard news about another district’s representative unless it is salacious.   The result of this situation is that in big markets a local representative is less likely to slobber over his local broadcasters because he knows he’s unlikely to get coverage for doing anything either good or bad.  In rural markets, the relationship between local broadcaster and representative tends to be much more intimate.  They see each other quite frequently at the TV station, local chamber of commerce, and other local events; the local representative sends TV footage to the local stations and expects to often get it aired; depending on the whim of the local TV station owners, candidate debates may or may not be televised (incumbents almost always prefer not televised); local stations might offer Sunday morning public affairs talk shows that regularly feature the local representative and ask softball questions; local candidates may take out a lot of  local TV advertising, want the best placement, and a heads up on their opponents’ ads (whereas in large markets such as New York City, candidates will view political ads as a waste of money because more than 95% of the audience won’t be constituents); and a non-news employee of a local TV broadcaster may be a valuable part of the representative’s campaign team (broadcast ad salesmen may be excellent fundraisers because of their close links to local businesses).   In short, in relatively small TV markets such as Oregon, local TV broadcasters tend to have more political clout.

An Investigative Strategy

Nailing down how local broadcasters use their control of the airwaves to intimidate members of Congress is difficult and not susceptible to the usual methods used by investigative journalists and academics.  Publicly disclosed government ethics reports, including campaign contributions, gifts, and professional lobbying have no bearing on this type of influence.
Moreover, broadcasters are too smart to leave a smoking gun behind.  The law doesn’t mandate that they have to, so why should they?

But here is one investigative strategy that might bear fruit.  First, the standard of evidence for evaluating intimidation must change.  The standard should not be a smoking gun but merely the appearance of improper influence.  This is the standard we use for judging the ethics of elected officials; it should also be the standard we use for judging the ethics of broadcast executives.

Second, I suggest that passionate, one-sided, and self-serving arguments presented to members of Congress by local broadcast executives with control of news coverage should be accepted as evidence of intimidation.   Local broadcasters rarely present such views publicly, on-the-record, but their paid bully-boys, including the NAB and trade publications, do.  Unless they specifically and publicly disagree with the positions of their paid representatives, it should be assumed that they hold similar positions and have expressed them during their lobbying contacts with their local Congressional representatives.

Third, I suggest using local broadcasters’ annual lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill as a test case.  Every year local broadcasters, like many major interest groups, come to Washington, DC to blitz the Hill.  This consists of local delegations of broadcasters from each state meeting with local members of Congress in their broadcast coverage areas.  In many offices, the member of Congress will pull out the red carpet for the broadcasters–as if the Pope were visiting.   The difference is that when the Pope visits a head-of-state, the visit gets a lot of publicity.  But when senior local broadcasting executives meet their representatives, it’s done purely in the backroom.

What goes on in those backrooms?  Often a combination of two things: 1) the broadcasters ask for news items they might broadcast on their local stations, and 2) they explain their legislative agenda.   I have no reason to believe that there is ever an explicit quid pro quo between those two activities.  But the point is that the appearance doesn’t look good for either the local broadcaster or member of Congress, so both sides treat it with about as much transparency as an adulterous affair.

Remember, the broadcasting industry isn’t just any industry lobbying for special favors.  It controls the most influential political medium for members of Congress, and it’s an industry that presents itself to the public as upholding the values of journalistic independence.   According to standard press codes, journalists and those who control the news aren’t supposed to lobby.  Period.   Meanwhile, it is well understood that members of Congress obsess over media coverage like a young adolescent pining after the most beautiful girl in the class.    So whether or not there are any quid pro quos in those meetings (as in, “we’ll cover your pet project and give you an insurance policy on negative coverage if you’re our friend”), the appearances are awful, and the broadcasters and members of Congress know it.

It’s my hunch that the combination of the red carpet treatment and secrecy about it is vividly illustrated in the Oregon Congressional delegation, especially for members on committees with jurisdiction over local broadcast industry interests.  So why not do a little investigation of the information exchanges that take place during those meetings?  These exchanges also often take place when local representatives visit their local stations for interviews or otherwise see their local broadcasters at community events.   But the annual blitz is concentrated in time and space and should be easier to investigate in some systematic way.  The next blitz is scheduled for March 3-4, 2010.  Just identifying the participants and separately asking them for their different accounts of what was discussed and how it was discussed could be quite revealing.

Public Policy Recommendation

Here are two public policy recommendations to make it easier to bring sunlight to the type of aggressive lobbying done by local broadcasters.  The first involves making the broadcasters’ media lobbying more transparent; the second involves making broadcasters’ non-media lobbying more transparent.

Extend the lessons of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case allowing unlimited corporate media campaigns on behalf of candidates, there has been great pressure to require more corporate disclosure of such activities.   Why not extend the same obligations to broadcasters, who exert their power not by spending money on others’ media but by using their own media to intimidate enemies and reward friends?   One way to do this would be to require better archives of broadcast industry programming.  Currently, online access to broadcast public affairs programming records is abysmal (see J.H. Snider, “Local TV News Archives as a Public Good,” Harvard International Journal of Press-Policy).  If broadcasters won’t provide easy access to their own records of candidate and issue coverage, then the copyright laws should be changed to allow others to do so.   Today, broadcasters make a simple calculation.  Making the records easily available makes them more accountable, exposing them to libel and other unwanted economic liabilities.  On the other hand, the economic gains from the sale of old public affairs programming is negligible.  So the economic calculus has strongly favored tightly controlled and inaccessible public access to broadcast records.  What is missing from this economic calculation is democratic accountability, which is why the law should be changed to facilitate holding broadcast stations accountable for their use of the airwaves to help friends and punish enemies.

Extend the ex parte rules to Congress. More transparency in lobbying encounters between broadcasters and politicians would be helpful.  One proposal would be to treat media executives (and executives from other heavily subsidized industries) as professional lobbyists, subjecting them to the same disclosure requirements as professional lobbyists concerning the legislation they lobby.  Even better, I’d suggest extending the ex parte rules to their lobbying of Congress.  In the executive branch, meetings between professional lobbyists and rulemakers concerning an active rulemaking must be publicly disclosed, and these disclosures must include information about the time, place, individuals present, and subjects discussed.  Those rules should be extended to Congress.    With such a transparency requirement, members of the public could decide whether it is unseemly for local broadcasters and members of Congress to use public resources to lobby each other for mutual gain.  The same philosophy recently led the Obama administration to require the public disclosure of the names of everyone who enters the White House.

Conclusion

For a brief moment in time it looked like the FCC would transition broadcast spectrum to broadband spectrum without granting broadcasters a huge economic windfall in the process.  That moment now appears to have come to an end.  In understanding how this windfall has taken on an aura of political inevitability, I suggest looking more closely at the interactions between local Oregon broadcasters and their members of Congress.    I’m not in any way suggesting that undertaking such an investigation would be easy, which is why I’ve recommended several new public policies that would shed light on such interactions and their results.  But given the lack of public transparency requirements on broadcast lobbying and the resulting methodological restraints imposed on reporters and others interested in investigating such issues, a narrow focus on Oregon might be revealing.  If Oregon broadcasters are shown to have preserved their journalistic integrity–something I wouldn’t bet on–then we could feel more confident that broadcasters in other local markets have, too.

–Stay tuned for more on the Broadcast Band’s Bully Boys–

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