PNRC criticizes FCC Commissioners for smug dismissiveness

By Richard Karpel, executive director, Public Notice Resource Center

In comments filed last month with the Federal Communication Commission, the Public Notice Resource Center criticized Commissioners who mocked opposition to a recent proposal that would eliminate FCC rules requiring broadcasters to publish a notice in a local newspaper when they file certain license applications with the Commission. 

“We were struck by the dismissive tone adopted in the statements of (some of the Commissioners) respecting the notion that local newspapers might still serve as the most effective means to deliver notice to the public,” said PNRC in its comments. “How did we reach a point where their consideration of the issue of public notice is so facile they ridicule a longstanding practice without bothering to provide any evidence that the alternative they’re promoting would be an improvement?” 

The public notice requirement the FCC is now proposing to eliminate was adopted in 1962 to ensure the public knows about applications filed by broadcasters operating in their communities. The rule was designed to provide local communities with a meaningful opportunity to participate in the broadcast licensing process. Despite that rationale, the FCC’s proposal failed to explain how eliminating newspaper notice would promote citizen input in the licensing process. It focused instead on providing broadcasters with “flexibility” and reducing their “costs and regulatory burdens.”

PNRC noted that “the cost and burden of placing a public notice advertisement in a newspaper are microscopic” and that the FCC has no reason to provide broadcasters with flexibility in how they inform the public.

“The Commission’s goal should be to eliminate broadcasters’ flexibility by developing rules that provide them with precise instructions about how they must notify the public to promote the highest level of input,” argued PNRC. “After all … (the broadcasters) are the proverbial foxes guarding citizen henhouses here. They have every incentive to use any discretion the Commission may grant to minimize participation in the process by which their applications will be reviewed.”

Newsprint is inherently superior to the Internet as a source of public notice due to intrinsic differences between the two mediums, PNRC argued. “The serendipitous process (of reading a newspaper) guarantees that public notices in local newspapers will be seen by many people in the community who didn’t pick up the paper intending to read them.” By contrast, public notices on the web “get lost and are easily hidden.” To illustrate this danger, PNRC highlighted relatively recent controversies in Arkansas and Michigan in which local officials admitted that notices posted on government websites failed to inform citizens about local projects with major environmental impacts.

Newspapers still reach a significant audience and most papers now post notices in both the print edition and on their website, said PNRC. “So if the Commission eliminates newspaper notice requirements (for broadcast license applications), it will also reduce the presence of those notices on the Internet. Could it be any clearer, then, that doing so would significantly diminish citizen input in the licensing process?”

In his statement supporting the Commission’s proposal, Chairman Ajit Pai mocked the notion that newspaper notice may still be the most effective means of reaching local citizens. “Google it if you don’t agree with me,” he gibed. Commissioner Brendan Carr also made light of current notice requirements by noting they were approved the same day the Beatles released their first single and the first James Bond movie premiered, as if that was somehow conclusive. 

Around the same time the Commissioners were ridiculing the concept of public notice, Chairman Pai released his now-infamous Harlem Shake video, in which he taunted those who disagree with his position on Net Neutrality. He also mocked fellow Commissioner Mignon Clyburn that same week after she passionately expressed opposition to the FCC proposal on Net Neutrality.

“Mocking opposing viewpoints appears to be a problem at the FCC,” said PNRC Chairman Brad Thompson, president of Detroit Legal News Publishing. “The Commissioners have an ethical and legal responsibility to fully consider positions they disagree with. Yucking it up during their proceedings is inconsistent with that responsibility and precludes the possibility they might learn something.”

PNRC was joined in its comments by 35 associations representing newspaper publishers.

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