On Public Files, Secrecy, and the Public Interest Obligations of Broadcasters

Posted by Mitchell - May 29, 2011 (entry 674)

The FCC is considering a proposal to abolish the requirement for public files for broadcasters -- the file of public documents and public correspondence that all TV and radio broadcasters, by law, are required to keep, maintain, and make available to the public during normal business hours. Yes, that's correct, you have the right and the ability to visit any radio or TV station during normal business hours (usually 9AM to 5PM Monday through Friday) to request their public file and the station is required to accommodate you. In fact, the FCC has recently fined stations that have let their public file or file accommodations go lax. (John Anderson at the excellent DIYmedia.net has a great post outlining the details about the history and politics of public files which you must read.)

Why is this important? The public file is one of the few opportunities to see some of the seamier side of broadcasters; it's little wonder why broadcasters don't want people to visit or know about them, a lot of ugly secrets are hidden in plain sight in a public file, if you know what to look for. Some of these are outlined in a letter I sent to the FCC and reposted here at the CMA website. As Glenn Greenwald reminds us: "Secrecy is the crux of institutional power", and anything to help reveal those secrets can defuse that institutional power.

Broadcasters are giving half-assed arguments supporting public file abolition saying that (a) hardly anyone views public files and (b) it's too expensive to maintain. But (a) broadcasters barely publicize the fact that they maintain public files, and more people probably would make use of public files if they, you know, heard about it from broadcasters, and (b) broadcasters have been eviscerating their staff in the wake of increasing media concentration, so if they didn't go full-hog on concentrating media and firing their staff it wouldn't be so hard to maintain.

The FCC is actually on our side on this one, and speaking out -- even a relatively few emails -- can make a difference. The last time the FCC had a docket on the matter, it got fewer than 36 comments. Public comment will be accepted through June 17, 2011. You can send feedback via email to PRA@fcc.gov and Cathy.Williams@fcc.gov.

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