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Remarks of FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani
Campaigns, Broadcasters, and the Public Interest
June 19, 2000

(as prepared for delivery)

I have conflicting thoughts about being here today. On the one hand, I’m pleased to be here to commend the efforts of the broadcast groups who are here. And I’m especially pleased to support the excellent work that Paul Taylor and Norm Ornstein are doing to bring political discourse back to the nation’s airwaves. They deserve all of the praise and gratitude that we can heap upon them.

On the other hand, I can’t help but wish that groups like the Alliance for Better Campaigns had no reason to exist. They only exist because not all broadcasters take their civic and legal responsibilities as seriously as the broadcasters here do. And they only exist because those of us in public life are not fulfilling our responsibility to hold those broadcasters accountable. The sad reality is that we wouldn’t be here unless it was “news” that some broadcasters are doing what all broadcasters ought to be doing as a matter of course.

Let me state the problem as clearly and simply as I can. Broadcasters have entered into a deal with the public. Broadcasters receive free and exclusive use of a valuable chunk of public property – the spectrum. In exchange, broadcasters agree to serve the “public interest.” The minute a broadcaster wants out of that deal, they can turn in their spectrum and we’ll find someone else to take it.

I don’t want to get into an extended discussion about what the public interest means. But let me share some of my thoughts.

The public interest standard must have some substantive meaning. It cannot simply be "whatever interests the public." That is simply an attempt to deprive the term of any real meaning. Congress does not enact meaningless or unnecessary language – much less language that has been as scrutinized and debated over the years as much as the public interest standard.

The public interest requirements should be specific. While Congress gave the Commission broad and flexible authority to define the public interest as technology and the needs of the public change, the actual requirements should be as specific as possible.

The public interest standard should be a "safety net" to protect the public against those broadcasters who might be tempted to avoid their obligations in the absence of a rule. The fact that many broadcasters may be fulfilling their public interest obligations does not make the standard unnecessary.

The public interest standard should apply to every broadcast station, not to the industry as a whole. If it's the bad actors that we're concerned about, those broadcasters should not be able to piggy-back on the efforts of others.

The public interest standard should protect and enrich our children. Children spend far more time with television than any other medium, and the vast majority of that time is unsupervised. There is no doubt that television exerts a great influence on their development and well-being. We must do what we can to protect our children from material that may harm them and to ensure that they have access to programming that meets their particular needs.

The public interest standard should promote diversity over the public airwaves. That includes giving all segments of the community the opportunity to participate in broadcasting, both as owners and as employees responsible for the day-to-day decision-making.

But perhaps most importantly, the public interest standard should promote an open and robust debate on issues of public concern. As the Supreme Court has said on more than one occasion, "speech concerning public affairs . . . is the essence of self-government." The importance of television to the democratic process cannot be overstated. A majority of Americans still rely on television as their primary source of electoral information. In a democracy like ours, if the public interest means anything, it means using this powerful medium to help people make choices about, and debate, the issues of the day. Television is still the primary means by which people get their news and information. We cannot close our eyes to the level and quality of political discourse that our fellow citizens are being provided.

A New York Times article from a couple of months ago sums up the problem. Its headline reads “Networks Cede Political Coverage to Cable.” The gist of the article is that the major broadcast networks have basically given up doing serious political coverage, leaving it to the CNNs, MSNBCs and C-SPANs of the world. Dan Rather had this to say about the current state of political coverage: “We have a public responsibility beyond delivering stockholder value. In some ways, we have abrogated that civic trust.” One problem, of course, is that millions of Americans don’t get cable. Those Americans don’t see the debates, don’t hear from the candidates, don’t become educated on the issues. They do see lots and lots of 30-second political ads. That’s the information on which millions of citizens are making decisions. Scary thought.

The recent study released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in conjunction with the Alliance for Better Campaigns confirms this sad state of affairs. In the 30 days leading up to Super Tuesday, the Big Three networks devoted only 28 to 42 seconds a night on their newscasts to candidate-centered discourse. And those stories that did air were far more likely to focus on the strategies of the presidential candidates than on what they stood for. As the study stated:

The only conclusion to be drawn from network coverage in the month leading up to Super Tuesday is that the press did a poor job of introducing audiences to the candidates seeking the highest elected office, and informing them about the issues and differing visions of the future being debated in the Campaign. As a result, those who relied on network news found themselves in the voting booth with little information on which to make an informed choice.

In addition, as good a job as the national cable channels do, they rarely cover local politics. So even those people who have cable don’t necessarily become informed about the local issues of the day by watching cable.

That’s where broadcasters – and especially local broadcasters -- can and should come in. Broadcasters alone reach almost every home in America. And broadcasters have a unique ability to cover local issues because they live and work in the communities they serve.

But some broadcasters say that they’re just giving people what they want. They say that they would provide more political coverage, but that no one watches it. Let me respond. First, it misses the point. As I said earlier, broadcasters are not like other businesses. They have agreed to serve not just their private interest, but to serve the public interest. Those interests are not the same. There are certain public goods that can’t be measured by simply adding up the choices of private individuals. As Professor Cass Sunstein has pointed out, political discourse is one of those public goods. Once one person knows something, the benefits of that knowledge will probably accrue to others, and to society as a whole, because the electorate will make better decisions. That’s where the public interest standard comes in – to capture those public benefits that a broadcaster would not capture if it were allowed to simply pursue its own economic self-interest.

Speaking of economic self-interest, broadcasters are making out quite nicely on the political process – not covering it, but selling ad time to candidates. Broadcasters set new records every election cycle. As the Alliance for Better Campaigns recently announced, the broadcast industry is expected to make $600 million from the 2000 election – a six-fold increase from what it took in a generation ago. In the recent U.S. Senate race in New Jersey, viewers were ten times more likely to see a campaign ad than a campaign story on the local news.

It’s time for all broadcasters not only to take from the political process, but to give something back. The broadcasters here today have taken an important first step. But we have a long ways to go. Not one of the major broadcast networks is here. And political news coverage is so rare it ought to be on the endangered species list.

For the past twenty years, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that the marketplace will provide the type of broadcast service we need. But sometimes we recognize that there are market failures that require government intervention. In 1990, for instance, Congress recognized that the marketplace was not satisfying our need for quality children’s programming, and passed the Children’s Television Act.

We may be reaching the same place regarding political discourse. If the marketplace is not working, it may be time for government to step in. After all, we are not talking about soda pop or toaster-ovens. We are talking about our democracy.

So, once again, let me commend the broadcasters who are here for their efforts to bring political discourse back to the public airwaves. I hope to hear this morning why and how they took this step, and how other broadcasters might follow their lead.

And that’s the key point. It’s still not too late in this election cycle for other broadcasters to join in. The election is still five months away. I think that how broadcasters respond over the coming months will have a big impact on whether we can continue to rely on the voluntary actions of broadcasters, or whether a different approach is needed.