Super PACS hit “Sesame Street”

The recent court ruling to allow political ads on PBS and NPR reflects the same flawed "logic" as Citizens United

Topics: Citizens United, PBS, NPR,

Super PACS hit "Sesame Street"

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about how the media giants who own your local commercial television and radio stations have been striking like startled rattlesnakes at an FCC proposal that would shed a light on who’s buying our elections. The proposed new rule would make it easier to find out who’s bankrolling political attack ads by posting the information online.

The stations already have the data and are required by law to make it public to anyone who asks. But you can get only it by going to the station and asking for the actual paper documents – what’s known as “the public file.” Stations don’t want to put it online because — you guessed it — that would make it too easy for you to find out who’s putting up the cash for all those ads polluting your hometown airwaves.

If approved, the new rule would require the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates in the top 50 markets to make their files on political advertising available online immediately. Other stations would have a two-year grace period.

In the meantime, the mighty giants of broadcasting have been fighting back. A number of senators serving the industry have spoken up against the proposal and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) — led by their top lobbyist and president, the frozen food millionaire and former Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith – have been meeting with commissioners urging them to scuttle its proposal or at least water it down until it means nothing.

As Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic magazine wrote:

“The arguments against transparency offered by the networks show that, having experienced the windfall of advertising dollars that Citizens United unleashed, they have little interest in meeting their legal and ethical responsibility to serve the public interest.”

The FCC is scheduled to vote on their proposal on April 27, and on Monday its chairman, Julius Genachowski, walked into the lion’s den – the really nice one in Las Vegas – and addressed the NAB’s annual convention. He noted that, “Using rhetoric that one writer described as ‘teeth-gnashing’ and ‘fire-breathing,’ some in the broadcast industry have elected to position themselves against technology, against transparency, and against journalism.”



He added, “[T]he argument against moving the public file online is that required broadcaster disclosures shouldn’t be too public. But in a world where everything is going digital, why have a special exemption for broadcasters’ political disclosure obligation?”

Whatever the result on the 27th, those negative attack ads already are cluttering the airwaves like so much unsolicited junk mail and it’s only going to get much, much worse as the super PACs, political parties, the moguls and tycoons, many acting in secrecy, lavish perhaps as much as three billion dollars on local stations between now and November.

But now there’s something new in the mix, especially appalling to anyone who truly cares about public broadcasting. On April 12, by a vote of 2-1, two of three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of KMTP, a small public station in San Francisco, and struck down the federal ban against political and issue advertising on public TV and radio. For decades there’s been a rule against turning those airwaves over to ads for political campaigns and causes. Now the court has ruled that the free speech rights of political advertisers take precedence.

Imagine if you turned on your TV set someday soon and were greeted by “Sesame Street,” brought to you by the letter C, for “creeping campaign cash corruption.” Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but as the late William F. Buckley, Jr., used to say, the point survives the exaggeration.

If ever there was a camel’s nose under the tent, this is it – and we don’t mean one of those humped creatures that show up on PBS’ “Nature” or an episode about backpacking through Egypt on “Globe Trekker.” The current public system was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. “It will get part of its support from our government,” Johnson said, “but it will be carefully guarded from government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent — and it will belong to all of our people.”

The Public Broadcasting Act uses the word “noncommercial” 16 times to describe what public television and radio should be. And it specifically says that, “No noncommercial educational broadcasting station may support or oppose any candidate for political office.” We’ve taken that seriously all these years, and most of us who have labored in this vineyard still think public broadcasting should be a refuge from the braying distortions and outright lies that characterize politics today — especially those endless, head splitting ads.

But in its majority decision the court wrote, “Neither logic nor evidence supports the notion that public issue and political advertisers are likely to encourage public broadcast stations to dilute the kind of noncommercial programming whose maintenance is the substantial interest that would support the advertising bans.”

Sorry, your honors: This is the same so-called “logic” that led the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its notorious Citizens United decision, the one that opened all spigots to flood the political landscape with cash and the airwaves with trash.  “To be truthful” one former PBS board member said, “it scares me to death.” Us, too.

The court decision did uphold the ban on public broadcasting selling ad time for commercial goods and services, although, as corporations and others cover the cost of programming through what’s euphemistically referred to as “enhanced underwriting,” public TV already is close to the line of what differentiates it from commercial broadcasting.

And understandably, with our stations always in a financial pickle, frantically hanging on by their fingertips, it won’t be easy to turn down those quick bucks from super PACs and others. But hang in there, brothers and sisters in the faith: If ever there was a time for solidarity and spine, this is it.

Stations KPBS in San Diego and KSFR, public radio in Santa Fe, have said they won’t do it. If enough of you say no, this invasion might be repelled. And viewers, they need to know you’re behind them.

Bill Moyers is managing editor of the new weekly public affairs program, "Moyers & Company," airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at www.BillMoyers.com.

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>