Editor's Notes at EditorsNotes.com

Thursday, October 14, 2004

FCC Chair: Blocking Sinclair Film 'Disservice to 1st Amendment'


"Don't look to us to block the airing of a program," Michael Powell told reporters. "I don't know of any precedent in which the commission could do that."

Eighteen senators, all Democrats, wrote to Powell this week and asked him to investigate Sinclair Broadcast Group's plan to run the program, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," two weeks before the Nov. 2 election.

Powell said there are no federal rules that would allow the agency to prevent the program. "I think that would be an absolute disservice to the First Amendment and I think it would be unconstitutional if we attempted to do so," he said.

Also, a paper in one Sinclair market finds that experts say challenging stations' licenses would likely be unsuccessful:

Cathy Packer, an associate journalism professor at the UNC- Chapel Hill, suspects Sinclair protesters would have little footing in a public interest argument.

"They have every right in the world to air it. A broadcast station is committed through the terms of its license to air programming that serves the public interest," she said. "They can't decide they just don't like the programming."


But complaints about "Stolen Honor" are unlikely to force the FCC to yank the station's license, said Herb Terry, associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University.

In the 1980s, the FCC did away with the fairness doctrine, which required a station to air both sides of an issue, Terry said. The commission predicted viewers could always change the channel for another viewpoint.

"Places are free to be as unfair as they want be," Terry said. "The FCC's position is its regulation of content needs to be light-handed because of the First Amendment."

Licenses are rarely yanked, and then typically only for fraud, lying to the commission or flagrant equal employment opportunity violations, Terry added. The FCC can do nothing until the documentary airs but will probably inform the senators that it will consider whether Sinclair violated rules and regulations, he said.