Why the FCC silence on NBC license challenges? Other priorities, and it’s not up to them.

by on October 16, 2017 · 0 comments

Broadcast license renewal challenges have troubled libertarians and free speech advocates for decades. Despite our efforts (and our law journal articles on the abuse of the licensing process), license challenges are legal. In fact, political parties, prior FCCs, and activist groups have encouraged license challenges based on TV content to ensure broadcasters are operating in “the public interest.” Further, courts have compelled and will compel a reluctant FCC to investigate “news distortion” and other violations of FCC broadcast rules. It’s a troubling state of affairs that has been pushed back into relevancy because FCC license challenges are in the news.

In recent years the FCC, whether led by Democrats or Republicans, has preferred to avoid tricky questions surrounding license renewals. Chairman Pai, like most recent FCC chairs, has been an outspoken defender of First Amendment protections and norms. He opposed, for instance, the Obama FCC’s attempt to survey broadcast newsrooms about their coverage. He also penned an op-ed bringing attention to the fact that federal NSF funding was being used by left-leaning researchers to monitor and combat “misinformation and propaganda” on social media.

The silence of the Republican commissioners today about license renewals is likely primarily because they have higher priorities (like broadband deployment and freeing up spectrum) than intervening in the competitive media marketplace. But second, and less understood, is because whether to investigate a news station isn’t really up to them. Courts can overrule them and compel an investigation.

Political actors have used FCC licensing procedures for decades to silence political opponents and unfavorable media. For reasons I won’t explore here, TV and radio broadcasters have diminished First Amendment rights and the public is permitted to challenge their licenses at renewal time.

So, progressive “citizens groups” even in recent years have challenged license renewals for broadcasters for “one-sided programming.” Unfortunately, it works. For instance, in 2004 the promises of multi-year renewal challenges from outside groups and the risk of payback from a Democrat FCC forced broadcast stations to trim a documentary critical of John Kerry from 40 minutes to 4 minutes. And, unlike their cable counterparts, broadcasters censor nude scenes in TV and movies because even a Janet Jackson Superbowl scenario can lead to expensive license challenges.

These troubling licensing procedures and pressure points were largely unknown to most people, but, on October 11, President Trump tweeted:

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

So why hasn’t the FCC said they won’t investigate NBC and other broadcast station owners? It may be because courts can compel the FCC to investigate “news distortion.”

This is exactly what happened to the Clinton FCC. As Melody Calkins and I wrote in August about the FCC’s news distortion rule:

Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

The commissioners might personally wish broadcasters had full First Amendment protections and want to dismiss all challenges but current law permits and encourages license challenges. The commission can be compelled to act because of the sins of omission of prior FCCs: deciding to retain the news distortion rule and other antiquated “public interest” regulations for broadcasters. The existence of these old media rules mean the FCC’s hands are tied.

Previous post: