How The Media Is Suppressing Free Access to News
“The elephant in the room is the issue of transparency. They don’t want you to know anything, so they don’t share anything.”
– Michael Froomkin
Two and a half years ago, when I began this blog, I found a video clip of Hillary Clinton at a town hall moderated by Christiane Amanpour, in which she said some things that ended up being highly controversial.
CNN, at the time, made a link available for the entire town hall and Media Matters for America posted a clip from it that included a code that one can embed into a web page, for visitors to view. I used the clip in a post and for a few months, the clip was available for readers to view. Then, I received an email from a reader who informed me that the link to the clip was broken. Since I had gotten the clip from a story published by TPM, I went to the story on their site first. The story was still there, but the clip showed that the originator of the content, Mediaite, had removed it from their site. When I went to the CNN website to get the full town hall video, at first, I found that they no longer made an embed code available for it. I then found a shorter clip of the same section of the town hall on YouTube. When I went back to CNN to see if the full town hall video page was still up, I couldn’t find it. CNN has retained one story that includes about a half a dozen clips, but no full town hall. CNN does make available a transcript of the town hall, however.
A recent example of oddly unavailable material is CNN’s Brooklyn debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. They never even put up the town hall after they broadcast it. The few entities that put up clips from it on YouTube have since had them taken down due to copyright violation. The most recent instance of a video clip being removed is that of the full back and forth between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on Sanders’ free college platform. I originally used a full clip of the exchange. It was taken down within a couple of days. I then found another and it was removed within a couple of weeks. I found another. Eventually, however, I may not find any more.
CNN is hardly the only news organization that I’ve found lacking in this respect. On April 25, 2016, MSNBC held a town hall in which both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton took part. While one can find some highlights of the town halls, no video of the event can be found in a search of the site by date (April 25th) with some or all of the key words included. I began searching the MSNBC site on the night of the town halls and in the days since. Some people and organizations have put up their own recordings on YouTube, but as I’ve explained above, those recordings have a habit of being taken down “at the request of the copyright owner.”
Were these documentary movies or other proprietary content that MSNBC, CNN and the other news organizations produced, then I would have no argument with their absence from the web, and the right of the organizations that made them not to make them available for free. But content such as debates and town halls are not proprietary content and they are newsworthy to a voting public that is deciding which candidates to vote for. Hence, news organizations that hosted such primary events should make available, going back as far as reasonably relevant, either on their YouTube channels (most of them have one) or on their websites for the public to review at will. The town hall in which Hillary Clinton participated on June 27, 2014 is still relevant today. Several statements she made at the time are still newsworthy to one segment of the public or another, on a number of topics. Withholding video record of that event can only be described as suppressing news. The particular segment of that 2014 town hall that I was interested in, one in which Clinton refused to qualify the treatment of President Obama at the hands of the Congressional GOP as racist, is one that will be relevant for years to come in discussions about institutional racism, the Obama legacy, and conscious and subconscious bias, for example. It is incumbent upon CNN to carry out its responsibility to the public and maintain a proper archive of news material. The same is true of MSNBC and the April 25 town hall it held. That event was newsworthy. It is inconceivable that it is being kept from the public during a primary, but it is.
As I keep coming up against these problems of access to materials I don’t view as proprietary in any way, shape or form, I have been wondering about who really owns the news? Is it legal for news organizations to only make available certain news items during an election season? Is it ethical for news organizations to pick and choose what the public can see at will? Why would mediaite and CNN pull video records of Hillary Clinton’s town hall?
“Media transparency (or transparent media) is the concept of determining how and why information is conveyed through various means.”
Usually, when we talk about suppression, it is government that is doing the suppressing. What if it is the media itself that is suppressing information from the public?
Are the political debates and town halls in a primary election the private property of a corporate media concern? How about candidate interviews? Speeches that were covered by a television, radio or newspaper?
Is it suppression when a cable network pulls available video from its website right before the start of a primary election?
Is it suppression when a cable news network holds a town hall and only posts select snippets from it? Is it suppression and manipulation if those snippets happen to favor only one candidate? The advent of the internet has changed much of what media organizations can do and, in turn, how much the news consumer has the potential ability to access. Whereas, before the internet, media organizations could easily claim that it would be too onerous to make town halls, speeches and debates available for readers and viewers on demand, in the age of the internet and cheap data storage, such a claim cannot be made. Whereas specific footage of a town hall was freely available for viewing until the start of the primary election and hasn’t been available since, should the lack of transparency inherent in the removal of the material be viewed as a form of suppression and manipulation of the electorate?
I will be interviewing subject-matter experts and federal communications officials, in an effort to clarify the permutations of current statutes in the law, as they pertain to transparency and availability to the public.
Intellectual property generally refers to a work product that is created by a private concern, and that the entity who created it has full ownership of it. Who owns the news? Are we, the public, entitled to access to the news? By law, we are entitled to basic cable. Are nationally-televised debates and town halls a part of the free flow of information that is of particular importance to the public during an election under the Communications Act? Now that the vast majority of newspapers are online, are they bound to FCC rules since they now also broadcast? Should some portion of the materials broadcast by print organizations fall under these FCC rules in an effort to bring transparency and the free flow of information of particular importance to the public during an election?
Those are all questions I will be exploring here in upcoming pieces.
The Federal Communications Commission’s manual is available on its website. In it are the rules and regulations that pertain to the media, including the responsibilities of media organizations to the viewing/reading public:
What the FCC has to say about media organizations’ responsibilities:
Political Broadcasting: Candidates for Public Office. “In recognition of the particular importance of the free flow of information to the public during the electoral process, the Communications Act and the Commission’s rules impose specific obligations on broadcasters regarding political speech.
Reasonable Access. The Communications Act requires that broadcast stations provide “reasonable access” to candidates for federal elective office. Such access must be made available during all of a station’s normal broadcast schedule, including television prime time and radio drive time. In addition, federal candidates are entitled to purchase all classes of time offered by stations to commercial advertisers, such as preemptible and non-preemptible time. The only exception to the access requirement is for bona fide news programming (as defined below), during which broadcasters may choose not to sell airtime to federal candidates. Broadcast stations have discretion as to whether to sell time to candidates in state and local elections.
Equal Opportunities. The Communications Act requires that, when a station provides airtime to a legally qualified candidate for any public office (federal, state, or local), the station must “afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office.” The equal opportunities provision of the Communications Act also provides that the station “shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast” by the candidate. The law exempts from the equal opportunities requirement appearances by candidates during bona fide news programming, defined as an appearance by a legally qualified candidate on a bona fide newscast, interview, or documentary (if the appearance of the candidate is incidental to the presentation of the subject covered by the documentary) or on–the–spot coverage of a bona fide news event (including debates, political conventions and related incidental activities).”
The Local Public Inspection File
“Requirement to Maintain a Public Inspection File. Our rules require that all licensees and permittees of TV and radio stations and applicants for new broadcast stations maintain a file available for public inspection. This file must contain documents relevant to the station’s operation and dealings with the community and the FCC. The public inspection file generally must be maintained at the station’s main studio. To obtain the location and phone number of a station’s main studio, consult your local telephone directory, or call the station’s business office. You may also be able to find this information on the station’s Internet website, if one exists.
Purpose of the File. Because we do not routinely monitor each station’s programming and operations, viewers and listeners are an important source of information about the nature of their area stations’ programming, operations, and compliance with their FCC obligations. The documents contained in each station’s public inspection file have information about the station that can assist the public in this important monitoring role.
As discussed in this Manual, every station has an obligation to provide news, public affairs, and other programming that specifically treats the important issues facing its community, and to comply with the Communications Act, the Commission’s rules, and the terms of its station license. We encourage a continuing dialogue between broadcasters and members of the public to ensure that stations meet their obligations and remain responsive to the needs of the local community. Because you watch and listen to the stations that we license, you can be a valuable and effective advocate to ensure that your area’s stations comply with their localism obligation and other FCC requirements.”
Message to readers:
Thanks to your generosity, my family has averted homelessness another week. We are very grateful.
We remain at-risk as we are still far from meeting our goal for the GoFundMe campaign to secure a permanent housing solution. Your continued support is very much needed and deeply appreciated.