No Comment — March 31, 2008, 11:32 am

Siegelman and the Fairness Doctrine

When CBS News’s 60 Minutes put out its report “The Prosecution of Governor Siegelman” (for which I was repeatedly interviewed) one sole affiliate, the Northern Alabama station WHNT, suffered mysterious technical problems that blocked 12 minutes—virtually the whole Siegelman story, but nothing else in the program—on its initial airing. The Washington Independent weighs in today with a very solid exploration of the issue:

WHNT first claimed the blackout was the result of a faulty feed originating with CBS in New York. A more thorough investigation, station officials later said, revealed that the trouble was a local equipment failure preventing WHNT from receiving the CBS signal–a situation remedied 12 minutes into the Siegelman segment. In response to local complaints, WHNT re-ran the segment four hours after it was initially scheduled, and again the following evening. But the re-runs did little to cool the suspicions of Democrats. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, pushed hard for an official inquiry, which was initiated nine days following the blackout.

Legal experts and media watchdogs say that blackouts of such length are extremely rare, particularly during peak viewing hours. “Blackouts, of some duration, probably happen all the time,” said Aaron Craig, communications director of Free Press, a non-partisan media reform group. “Now, do they happen during prime-time, when the story is focused on potential corruption in the same state? At best, it’s an unfortunate coincidence.”

Botein agreed, saying that the sophistication of today’s broadcast equipment — combined with the commercial appeal of the program in question — makes such a coincidence highly unlikely. “A show like ’60 Minutes’ gets incredible ratings,” Botein said. “A 12-minute blackout? — It’d never happen. They’d lose half their audience. . .”

While WHNT is owned by Oak Hill Capital, a Texas-based private equity firm with a long history of support for Democratic candidates and causes, the day-to-day operations are run by a newly created Oak Hill venture called Local TV LLC. Based in Kentucky, Local TV is headed by Robert Lawrence, a long-time GOP supporter whose many political contributions include $2,000 to the Bush campaign in 2004, and $7,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2000. Local TV’s previous CEO, Randy Michaels, a controversial figure who once headed the radio division at Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio conglomerate, also has a long history of ties to conservative figures. Michaels is credited with discovering the popular conservative talk show host Sean Hannity in the early 1990s. He also signed enormous radio deals with Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, two powerhouses on the conservative talk-radio circuit.

But the major point of the Washington Independent piece goes to the Fairness Doctrine. Previously, a “blackout” resulting from an editorial decision rather than genuine technical problems could easily cause a station to lose its license. No longer.

“In this case, they’re certainly not going to pull their license over it,” said Clay Calvert, communications professor at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Mass Media Law, the nation’s top-selling undergraduate communications law textbook. “At most, it might merit a warning.” Considering the partisan make-up of the FCC, it might not even merit that. The commission’s “notice of inquiry” falls short of an investigation. And if Martin, the panel’s Republican chairman, accepts the station’s claim that the trouble was strictly technical, then the process could end there.

60 Minutes has been busy at work on the second installment of its series on Siegelman, which is likely to air this Sunday. It will be interesting to see if there is a recurrence of “technical problems.”

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