Why Fox News Doesn’t Have to Broadcast the Stage-Managed January 6 ‘Hearings’

The left-wing media, as well as their cohorts among elected officials and irate individuals in the Twitterverse, are all a-twitter about how Fox News is somehow violating a sacred public trust.  They allegedly did this by not programming gavel-to-gavel coverage of the intensely stage-managed hearings on the so-called January 6 “insurrection …”

These hearings are non-news, presented as a critical national issue of insurrection and treason.  As if eight hundred or so unarmed individuals could topple the government – defended by 1.3 million active-duty soldiers, sailors, Air Force personnel, and Marines, along with more than 800,000 reserve forces – by merely physically occupying the building for a short period of time.  And, as if, by not programming this blanket coverage, Fox News is betraying the public trust, thus somehow depriving people of access to these hearings.   

This is utter nonsense on several points.

First, and most obvious, there was never an existential insurrection. The country was never in any danger.  Realistically, far more damage was done to the public good by the “occupy” forces that claimed so much media attention and far-left support half a decade ago. Yet they were never charged with insurrection, even while calling for the downfall of our current system of government.

Next, even without Fox News, there is not any lack of news coverage of the hearings.   The following broadcast and cable networks are providing wall-to-wall coverage of these non-news “hearings” being stage-managed by a partisan Hollywood consultant.  These include Fox Business, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and other, lesser cable news outlets, such as CNBC.  So, any suggestion that Fox News was denying access to the hearings is outrageous.

Third, and – in my opinion – more important, the railing masses claim Fox News has a legal obligation to carry such a newsworthy event.  Pardon me, but … poppycock!  Utter nonsense.  Here’s the truth behind that charge. 

Broadcast networks have an ill-defined and seldom-enforced legal requirement to broadcast in the public interest.  However, cable news networks have no such requirement. Period. 

So what has that to do with Fox News?   It could be argued that the broadcast media – those who send their programs out over radio or television frequencies – have such a requirement.  After all, those frequencies are legally-deemed as owned by the public.  Beginning in the mid-30s,, the broadcast stations and networks were required by the Congressionally-passed and Presidentially-signed Communications Act of 1934 to “broadcast in the public interest.”   In this law, the FCC was given the role of enforcing such “public interest” broadcasting.  Why?  Because with the advent of radio – and later television – countries around the world, the US included, all agreed that these broadcast waves were “owned” by the public, or by the state on behalf of the public.  This was written into law, and stood the challenge of court hearings by stations and networks who resented this “in the public interest” requirement.  Yet since the 1930s, this has been accepted law here in the United States.

I learned of this, and of its importance, while studying journalism in college in the late sixties and early seventies.  Yeah, I come from the “old school” – defined as what colleges taught aspiring journalists before Woodward and Bernstein.  Their media-adored role in getting rid of Nixon also upended the very concept that reporters (and their stations or networks) were expected to stay carefully neutral in public-issue debates. 

For example, the fabled “most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, was a news broadcaster from the 1940s through the 1980s.  For that whole time, nobody really accused this “dean of network news” of having a political bias, one way or the other.  Only after he’d retired did he let slip that he’d been a “biased liberal,” as revealed in historian Douglas Brinkley’s blockbuster, “Cronkite.”  His broadcasts leaned left, but he did this so carefully and adroitly that it was never an issue, not even among rock-ribbed conservatives of the time.

Back in the pre-Woodward, pre-Bernstein era, not only were reporters expected to play fair with the news but their stations and networks still believed they were legally required to broadcast without bias, in the public interest.  As a news cameraman on Channel 10 Columbia South Carolina during this era, I was expected to turn in a fair number – thankfully never quantified – of “public interest” stories.  Nobody thought that odd. 

Later, as a public relations/media relations specialist, working for non-profit state agencies, colleges, and public hospitals, I generated a lot of fair and balanced coverage by not only reminding news editors that covering my employers was “in the public interest,” but when they did, I’d send letters to the FCC, praising the stations for doing just that.  At one station, I was shown a copy of my letter (which I’d provided them) having been etched into brass and mounted on a mahogany plaque, hung proudly in the station’s lobby.

Yeah, they took it seriously back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Since the 1980s, the real force behind that “public interest” requirement has been honored more in the breach.  Despite a move away from harsh enforcement – stations that didn’t comply used to risk the loss of their broadcast license – the laws and the governing principles behind them remain in force.  Of course, as they have done many times in the past, broadcast networks could have taken turns covering the hearings – or any other news the politicians in Washington deem “in the public interest.”  In this case, one network would cover on behalf of all three – and each would take a turn, one day in three – to “take one for the team.”  Even at its most draconian level of enforcement, covering a Congressional hearing was never seen as make-or-break public interest broadcasting.

Even more to the point, in recent decades the broadcast news networks elected to limit coverage of the two major parties’ quadrennial political conventions.  These used to be covered as “public service” literally from first gavel to last.  Now, not so much, yet NBC, CBS, and ABC don’t get penalized for not doing so.  Chastised, perhaps, but not punished.  And that’s by networks still using the public airwaves.  For cable news networks, the non-existent “public service” requirements don’t touch them at all and never had.

These cable networks didn’t really exist before Ted Turner created the first national cable network, based around Channel 17 in Atlanta.  To get customers, Turner had to work hard to convince communities to create a ground-based CCTV satellite farm, based around a group of satellite dishes, each hard-wired into individuals’ homes.  The information was never broadcast on one of the government’s regulated frequencies, so there was no legal, and no legislated public claim to ownership of the signals sent from ground stations to satellites in orbit, then down from those satellites to the CCTV antennae focused in on them.  These local CCTV operations morphed, over time, into the cable TV provider mega-corporations that keep America connected to broadcasters and cable networks alike.

Turner not only created the first viable cable network, but he also created the first two cable news networks:  CNN, and CNN Headline News.  From the beginning, these were not regulated in the public interest, since they never used the public airwaves.

Fast forward roughly forty years since CNN’s birth, Fox News – along with CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and a host of lesser cable networks – continue to operate as publicly-owned for-profit businesses.  Their news decisions are made not based on “the public interest,” but on “the shareholder’s interest.”

Which gets us to the bottom line – and it really is a bottom-line decision.  Given that the three broadcast news networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – still have the technical requirement to broadcast in the public interest, there is no reason, other than market share, for any of the cable networks to cover any particular news story.  Especially when doing so damages their bottom line (no ads are being run during the hearings, hence no ad revenue).  There is no public interest in forcing private businesses to toe the party line.  Not when there are already three giant broadcast networks willing to give up ad revenue to advance their own (liberal) agendas. 

No public harm was created by Fox’s decision to bow out of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the most stage-managed “hearings” in history.  Even had Fox not shifted that coverage to Fox Business, available across the continent on “basic cable,” there would be no such obligation.

As it turned out, Fox News did cover the hearings as news, but they did so within the context of their regularly scheduled news and commentary programs.  That suited Fox News’ business model, and informed their audience of the key points being presented in these farcical “hearings.”

Ned Barnett, a trained journalist, has worked in TV news, talk radio, as well as newspapers and magazines, since he published his first article, in 1970 – on a civil rights march in his college town, Athens, Georgia.  More recently, he became a professional public issue advocate, working in healthcare, high tech, higher education and the environment, always on the conservative side of the issues.  A decade ago, during the Tea Party era, he served as the communications director for both the Clark County/Las Vegas Republican Party and the Nevada Republican Party.  The author of 39 published books, he now works with authors to help them get their books written, published and promoted, focusing on widespread public news coverage.  He can be reached at nedbarnett51@gmail.com or 702-561-1167.

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