Media Reform Coalition Challenges Milwaukee TV Stations’ Licenses

Petition Filed With FCC Cites ‘Marketwide Failure’ to Serve Public Interest

November 1, 2005

A coalition of groups calling itself the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition today filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission challenging the renewal of all commercial television licenses in the Milwaukee market because of a marketwide failure of local stations to serve the public interest by meaningfully covering 2004 state and local election campaigns.

A study by the national Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) filed with the petition shows that election coverage accounted for only 5.2 percent of the total air time devoted to news by the five highest-rated Milwaukee TV stations in the four weeks prior to the 2004 general election. Nearly three-quarters of that meager amount of election coverage was devoted to the presidential race, a contest that was amply covered by the national networks and other national media, CMPA’s analysis shows. Less than 2 percent of total election coverage by Milwaukee stations focused on state-level elections and local races, the nonpartisan research and educational organization found.

“Local television stations are licensed to serve specific geographic areas and they are supposed to provide local news and information, including election coverage, that meets the needs of the local communities that rely on them,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a member of the Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition. “Milwaukee-area viewers didn’t need their local stations to cover Bush and Kerry. They needed their local stations to inform them of state and local issues and races. Their local stations failed them.”

What little election coverage Milwaukee stations offered focused very little on election issues. Less than a quarter of campaign-related stories focused primarily on issues, while nearly half dwelled on campaign strategy or “horse race” coverage, according to CMPA’s analysis.

“In the month leading up to the election, campaign coverage once again took a back seat to crime, accidents, storms, sports and celebrities on Milwaukee TV. But even when the stations did turn their attention to elections, they primarily told their viewers who was likely to win, while offering next to nothing in the way of information viewers could use to make up their own minds,” McCabe said.

The CMPA study also showed that only 13 percent of election-related news stories featured candidates speaking on their own behalf, and the average candidate soundbite was 10.7 seconds long.

The Milwaukee Public Interest Media Coalition is made up of nine organizations and a number of individual Milwaukee-area residents. Groups in the coalition include the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Common Cause in Wisconsin, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, Milwaukee County Labor Council (AFL-CIO), Wisconsin Citizen Action, the Coordinating Committee Against Hate Speech, Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin and Peace Action Wisconsin. Milwaukee-area residents who signed onto the petition include Milwaukee school board member and 2004 state Senate candidate Jennifer Morales, former Milwaukee city council member Don Richards, 2004 state Assembly candidate Dennis Uhlig, Jerry Fredrickson and journalist Geoff Davidian.

Meredith McGehee, director of the Media Policy Program of the national Campaign Legal Center, submitted an affidavit in support of the coalition’s petition.

In its filing today, the coalition asks the FCC for a hearing on its petition to deny renewal of the television stations’ licenses. Attorneys with the national Media Access Project will represent the coalition before the FCC. Media Access Project is a 30-year-old non-profit public interest telecommunications law firm based in Washington, D.C.

A copy of the petition, the CMPA study and other supporting documents are available by clicking on the links. (All are pdf documents requiring Adobe Acrobat Reader).