The Multinational Monitor

APRIL 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 4


B E H I N D   T H E   L I N E S

Shortchanging the Viewers

In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Two years later, the negative impact on public interest programming is al-ready evident. Shortchanging the Viewers, a recent report by Jim Donahue of Essential Information, finds that de-regulation of the television industry has contributed to a decrease in issue-oriented public affairs programming on broadcast television.

The Fairness Doctrine and other FCC regulations required broadcasters to air important and controversial topics of public concern and to provide a fair presentation of contrasting views. The FCC claims that "market forces" provide broadcasters incentives to air such programs. With the Fairness Doctrine in effect, the FCC argues, broadcasters were less likely to air shows addressing topics of public concern because they were afraid of potential legal challenges alleging they were biased in favor of one viewpoint. Repeal of the doctrine, the FCC concluded, would remove an "impediment to the broad-casting of controversial issues of public importance," suggesting that public affairs programs, dealing with "important issues or problems," would increase as a con-sequence.

Shortchanging the Viewers tested the FCC's theory and found it invalid. "The results show a 51 percent decrease, from 4.5 percent in 1979 to 2.2 percent in 1988, in the average percentage of issue-oriented public affairs programming between 6 a.m. and midnight on commercial television in the markets studied," Donahue says.

In 1984 the FCC eliminated a guideline which required network affiliated and independent VHF television stations to air 5 percent local, 5 percent informational (news plus public affairs) and 10 percent non-entertainment programming between 6 a.m. and midnight. The guide-line was designed to increase the likelihood that the programming interests of all local citizens would be met.

By comparing his results to those of a 1978 study, Donahue found that more network affiliates and VHF independent stations today failed to meet the minimum programming levels of the old 5-5-10 guideline than in 1978. Stations affiliated with Fox Broadcasting Network were the most delinquent in presenting public interest programming: 40 percent of Fox affiliates failed to present a public affairs program at any time in the composite week studied and 87 percent did not present a newscast. Of the network affiliated and VHF stations, 15 percent failed to present a news programs and 9 percent did not present any public affairs programs. Donahue's "study refutes FCC predictions that repeal of the Fairness Doc-trine would remove an impediment to presenting issue-oriented public affairs programming on television," said consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

South Africa Now

To those who watch network television, it may seem that the only thing that has happened in South Africa recently is that Winnie Mandela and her body guards have been implicated in the murder of a 14-year-old anti-apartheid

activist. But viewers who tune into public television, independent networks or cable television, may see a program that its producers say "offers a model for an-other way of reporting on international issues on television." South Africa Now (SAN) is a new weekly show, airing on many PBS stations as well as on the Independent Television Network and on Cable News Network. And it will soon be showing in the Frontline states of Southern Africa.

SAN includes news, news analysis and some background and cultural features on developments in South Africa.

Its creators, disturbed by the success of the South African government's media restrictions in eliminating U.S. network coverage of events taking place in South Africa, decided that they would put together an independent show to cover South African news. They get their footage from British, French and Dutch television sources and also work with a South African news agency in London and with freelance journalists in South Africa. For a half hour each week, SAN reports on South Africa and in the process shows just how successful the South African regime has been in blacking out news from the country and intimidating news organizations.

In Through the Out Door

Despite A 1986 ethics law intended to keep high level Department of Defense (DOD) officials from working for defense contractors after leaving the Pentagon, the practice remains commonplace, according to a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study.

The ethics legislation prohibits certain categories of DOD personnel—those who work closely with defense contractors in the procurement process or exercise decision-making authority over contracts—from working for contractors for at least two years after leaving DOD.

Under the law, the Defense Department is largely responsible for determining which of its employees are governed by revolving door restrictions. The GAO investigation concluded that the officials charged with that responsibility are expending more energy on finding ways to stretch the law to allow for exemptions for outgoing personnel than on applying the measure as intended. For example, one loophole allows otherwise restricted employees to work for contractors without the two-year delay if they will be earning less than $25,000. DOD interpreted that to mean that procurement personnel, working as "consultants," can earn unlimited income from the defense industry as long as individual contractor payments come to less than $25,000.

At a congressional hearing on this subject Rep. Charles Bennett, D-Fla., an author of the 1986 measure, said that DOD practices "raped the spirit" of the law. He offered a high profile example of the poor respect with which it is treated: Former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci, just months after leaving office in January, accepted director-ships with Westinghouse Electric, Kaman Corp. and Ashland Oil, all major defense contractors. Pentagon officials would not comment on whether the Department had approved Carlucci's actions.

— By Garth Bray


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