By B.N. Frank
In 2020, journalist, Sharryl Attkisson wrote a book about American media bias, Slanted. It’s astonishing and depressing how common this has become. Nevertheless, negative coverage isn’t always slanted coverage.
Baltimore chief prosecutor Marilyn Mosby has accused a local broadcast station of airing biased news coverage about her that has put her family’s safety at risk. She has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene on her behalf. It is not going well for Ms. Mosby.
From Ars Technica:
Baltimore chief prosecutor asks FCC to stop negative news coverage about her
First Amendment prevents FCC from punishing news station for its “tone.”
Baltimore’s chief prosecutor has asked the Federal Communications Commission to stop a local Fox News affiliate’s negative coverage about her, claiming that the “tone of the coverage” violates FCC rules.
The office of Marilyn Mosby, the Maryland State’s Attorney (SA) for Baltimore, filed the formal complaint last week against “FCC-licensed station WBFF, a Baltimore City-based Fox News-affiliated network.” The complaint asked acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and the rest of the commission “to enlist the full investigative and enforcement powers granted to you by the federal government to take action against the WBFF as soon as possible.” Mosby is a Democrat, and WBFF is part of the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The closest the complaint comes to alleging a factual error is in reference to a guest on one segment who said that Mosby is “a follower of the George Soros playbook, who’s… bought and paid for these elected DAs.” The complaint said that “State’s Attorney Mosby has never received a penny from George Soros or any of his political groups.” However, that segment was made by one of Sinclair’s national shows that runs on many stations and was not produced by WBFF.
Constitutional right of free press
The Radio Television Digital News Association urged the FCC to reject Mosby’s complaint, saying that “local journalists across the country have a Constitutionally guaranteed obligation to serve their communities by seeking and reporting the truth, often by reporting on the public activities of public officials.”
Mosby’s complaint points to an FCC rule that says, “[b]roadcasters may not intentionally distort the news,” and claimed that “WBFF persistently follows a disconcerting and dangerous pattern: beginning with a slanted, rigged, misleading, or inflammatory headline; followed by a conspiracy theory; and supported with guest commentary from disgruntled ex-employees or political opponents that lend false credibility to their biased coverage or omission of facts. Utilizing this pattern of practice in their broadcasts, citizens are not only consistently misinformed about the basis and intent of prosecutorial policies, additionally the merit of criminal convictions are distorted to detract from the public good championed by prosecutors.”
The complaint said that WBFF ran 248 stories about Mosby in 2020 and 141 so far in 2021, far more than any other Baltimore station. “While the frequency of coverage in question by the WBFF would give any reasonable person pause, it is the tone of the coverage that violates the FCC rules,” the complaint said. “The coverage by the WBFF represents acts that are not merely against the public interest; they also represent acts that are inflammatory against the safety of an elected official. In the public sphere, Fox News is infamous for its bias against people of color, and even more against those who could be deemed ‘progressive’ people of color.”
The FCC is highly unlikely to revoke a license or otherwise punish a news station for the “tone” of its coverage. As an FCC document explains, “the First Amendment and the Communications Act bar the FCC from telling station licensees how to select material for news programs or prohibiting the broadcast of an opinion on any subject.” The FCC further explains why it rarely intervenes in claims of news distortion:
The Commission often receives complaints concerning broadcast journalism, such as allegations that stations have aired inaccurate or one-sided news reports or comments, covered stories inadequately, or overly dramatized the events that they cover. For the reasons noted previously, the Commission generally will not intervene in these cases because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own. However, as public trustees, broadcast licensees may not intentionally distort the news.
The FCC has stated that “rigging or slanting the news is a most heinous act against the public interest.” The Commission will investigate a station for news distortion if it receives documented evidence of rigging or slanting, such as testimony or other documentation, from individuals with direct personal knowledge that a licensee or its management engaged in the intentional falsification of the news. Of particular concern would be evidence of the direction to employees from station management to falsify the news. However, absent such a compelling showing, the Commission will not intervene.
Mosby’s three-page complaint doesn’t refer to any “documented evidence of rigging or slanting” along the lines of what the FCC would require to take action.
The FCC says the broadcast of hoaxes concerning crimes or catastrophes can violate the commission’s rules but only if the “station licensee knew that the information was false; broadcasting the false information directly causes substantial public harm; and it was foreseeable that broadcasting the false information would cause such harm.”
Mosby alleges “pointed threat” to her safety
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