Monday, November 14, 2005

Citizens Push FCC to Improve TV, Then and Now
By Stephen Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk

In 1961, Newton Minow, then chair of the Federal Communications Commission,
famously decried television programming at the time as a "vast wasteland."
Many citizens including area educators, religious groups, community
organizations, and unions agreed and complained that our TV stations were
consistently ignoring local issues.

In 1962, the FCC responded to these concerns by convening a landmark series
of hearings in Chicago to determine if television stations were fulfilling
their legal obligations to serve the public interest.

While the hearings didn't forge any key policy changes, they did reaffirm
the FCC's commitment to require TV broadcasters to reflect community
concerns and showcase community voices in at least some programming.

After more than four decades of rampant commercialism and lax FCC oversight,
television today is much worse than it was in the early 1960s.

Exhibit A: Chicago TV stations' horribly inadequate coverage of nonfederal
elections in 2004. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media research
group, found that the five highest-rated TV stations in the Chicago market
devoted less than 8 percent of their newscasts to election coverage in the
month before Election Day 2004.

Some 66 percent of that coverage dealt exclusively with the presidential
campaign, while less than 1 percent covered state legislative races. This
mirrors a pattern in local media across the country; the Lear Center's local
news archive at the University of Southern California studied 11 media
markets during this same time and found that a given half-hour of local news
averaged a mere 2.4 minutes devoted to local electoral coverage.

Exhibit B: Chicago's TV stations consistently ignore news about and
perspectives from communities of color. Chicago's population is 37 percent
African-American and 26 percent Latino, yet no person of color hosts any
locally-produced public affairs shows on the city's English-language
stations. A study of the guests appearing on one flagship news show found
that more than 79 percent of guests were white, only 12 percent were African
American, and less than 3 percent were Latino. Multiple studies also confirm
that local TV news coverage of predominately African-American and Latino
neighborhoods in Chicago overwhelmingly focus on crime and social
dysfunction and exclude all other topics.

Clearly, another FCC investigation into the inadequacies of television is
long overdue.
Fortunately, media reform activists may provide a glimpse of hope. TV
broadcasters must renew their broadcast licenses every eight years, at which
time citizens can file objections with the FCC. All of the TV licenses in
the state are up for renewal in 2005, and the growing media reform movement
has seized on this opportunity to force broadcasters to pay attention to
their concerns.

On November 1, Chicago Media Action -- the city's leading media reform group
-- petitioned the FCC to deny the license renewals of nine English-language
TV stations in Chicago. The petition pointed to the paucity of TV coverage
of local elections as its basis for complaint.

At the same time, Third Coast Press, a Chicago-based community newspaper and
web-site, filed its own petition asking the FCC to revoke the licenses of
nearly 20 Chicago-area stations. Their filing addressed a number of
concerns, including scant and dismissive news coverage of antiwar protests
and increasing violence against women on TV.

The FCC should take these petitions seriously. The performance of the
stations in question has been deplorable and their license renewal
applications should be closely scrutinized. Moreover, the problems with
Illinois' TV broadcasters are symptomatic of the shortcomings of American
television in general. Acting on the complaints raised by media reform
groups would send a powerful message to TV stations around the country.

If the FCC accepts either or both of these petitions, the license renewal
applications of the affected stations would be subject to a hearing.
Ultimately, the issues raised in these petitions deserve to be discussed in
an open and public forum so that area residents can finally weigh in on the
dismal service they receive from their TV outlets.

Forty-three years have elapsed since those 1962 hearings and the public has
been forced to endure a continuing "vast wasteland" with nary an oasis in
sight. It is high time citizens were given a chance to talk back to their TV
sets again.
Macek is an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central
College. Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a
frequent contributor to assorted Chicago-area independent media efforts in
print, web, radio and television.
Copyright (C) 2005 by the Illinois Editorial Forum. Letters should be sent
to the Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL 62705-0082 11/05

Wednesday, November 02, 2005




CONTACTS:Washington, DC:Andrew Jay Schwartzman (President, Media Access Project) Chicago:Mitchell Szczepanczyk (Chicago Media Action) Steve Macek (Chicago Media Action)630-995-6374 (cell)

Washington, DC -- On Tuesday, November 1st, lawyers for media reform group Chicago Media Action (CMA) filed a formal petition with the Federal Communication Commission requesting that it deny the pending license renewal applications of nine Chicago television stations. The petition charges that the stations in question -- WBBM, WMAQ, WLS, WGN, WCIU, WFLD, WCPX, WSNS and WPWR -- fell far short of their obligations to serve the public interest by failing to provide adequate coverage of local and state elections during the 2004 campaign.

Under the terms of their licenses, television broadcasters are required to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. Stations must renew their licenses every eight years, at which time citizens can file objections with the FCC. All of the television licenses in the state of Illinois are up for renewal this year. If the FCC grants CMA's petition, the license renewals for the nine stations would be subject to a hearing, at least part of which would be held in or near Chicago.

Chicago Media Action's petition cites a study of locally produced news programming conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in support of its claims about the lack coverage of local elections in 2004. Based on a systematic review of all news and public affairs programming aired by the five highest-rated stations in the Chicago media market, the CMPA study found that just 7.8 percent of the station's newscasts during the last month of the 2004 campaign focused on elections. Some 79 percent of that election reporting dealt exclusively with the Presidential and Senate races. By contrast, U.S. House races accounted for just four percent of the stations' election coverage and Illinois House races accounted for less than one percent.

CMA's lawyer, Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Washington, DC-based public interest law firm Media Access Project, remarked, "The FCC has repeatedly affirmed the importance of broadcasters' service to the local community. It's impossible to reconcile this emphasis on localism with the paucity of local election coverage available to Chicago voters."

"These broadcasters get to use the public airwaves for free and rake in millions of dollars every year in advertising revenue," explained CMA board member Mitchell Szczepanczyk. "The least they can do in return is provide us with the news and information we need as citizens. Yet television news in Chicago consistently ignores state and local politics. Last year, for instance, WGN-TV did not air a single story about the many hotly contested races for the Illinois State Legislature. It's a disgrace. They simply don't deserve to stay on the air."

The document filed by CMA was not the only complaint the FCC received this week against Chicago's television outlets. Also on Tuesday, Third Coast Press, a Chicago-based community newspaper and website, submitted a "petition to deny" of its own one that challenged the license renewal applications of the city's commercial television stations as well as public broadcasters WTTW and WYCC on the grounds that, among other things, the stations' news programming marginalized the voices of anti-war activists in the lea—up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

ABOUT CHICAGO MEDIA ACTION. Chicago Media Action (CMA) is a Chicago area-group dedicated to analyzing and broadening Chicago's major media and to building Chicago s independent media. In 2004, CMA issued a widely-covered study of bias on WTTW's nightly news show, "Chicago Tonight." For more information about CMA, visit

For a copy of the CMA's petition, complete with supporting documents, please visit