Testimony at the Town Meeting on the Future of Media

Milwaukee, WI, September 7, 2006
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

Posted: September 11, 2006

Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, thank you for coming to Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is in the midst of the biggest political corruption scandal in our state’s history. Six of the most powerful state lawmakers in Wisconsin – including the former Assembly speaker, Senate majority leader, Assembly majority leader, assistant Assembly majority leader and two former co-chairmen of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee – have been convicted of crimes against democracy.

People in Milwaukee and across the state are asking what the heck happened to squeaky clean Wisconsin?

Among other things, TV happened. Media consolidation happened.

If you go into the Capitol press room, right inside the door to the left is a bank of slots where news releases and other information can be dropped off for the news organizations covering the Capitol. These mailboxes have been there for as long as I can remember. But today, half of them have been covered over with duct tape because there are no longer news organizations using them.

Milwaukee used to be served by two competing daily newspapers. Between them, they had a dozen reporters covering the Capitol. Today, the merged Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has three reporters assigned to the Capitol. Last time I counted, 14 Journal Sentinel reporters had a hand in covering the Green Bay Packers.

No Milwaukee television station has a Capitol bureau. Indeed, no Wisconsin television station has one. There are simply fewer eyes watching what’s going on in state government. There are fewer eyes watching what’s going on at City Hall. This is an invitation to mischief and a recipe for corruption. The scandals that have engulfed our Legislature should come as no surprise . . . they are the natural byproduct of the arrogance that takes root when elected officials believe no one is watching and no one is holding them accountable.

Of all the things I believe about politics and democracy, above all else I believe that elected officials serve us best when they serve in fear . . . a healthy fear of the voters and the media. Those who are running our government have lost that fear. The critically important balance of power between government officials and the media has tipped in favor of the politicians. They believe they are in control of the relationship with the media. They believe they can decide when, and under what circumstances, they will be interviewed. They believe they can control when, and under what circumstances, they will debate their opponents. This is a dangerous development.

The Democracy Campaign has teamed up with local and national partners to systematically monitor the coverage of state and local government as well as local and state-level election campaigns in the Milwaukee television market. In the critical four weeks before the 2004 general election, coverage of local and state-level election campaigns accounted for only 5% of the total airtime devoted to local news on the five highest-rated TV stations in Milwaukee. Of this meager amount, less than 2% focused on state-level elections and local races. Almost all of the election coverage on local newscasts focused on the presidential race. Milwaukee residents do not need their local news to cover national races. They can tune in to national newscasts for that. They need their local stations to cover what’s going on in their community and their state. As far as Milwaukee TV was concerned, those local election contests did not happen.

Not only did the quantity of election coverage leave much to be desired, but so did the quality. Less than a quarter of stories focused on issues. Nearly half dwelled on campaign strategy or “horse race” coverage. The bottom line is that when the people of Milwaukee were told anything at all about local and state-level elections, they were mostly told who was likely to win and were given precious little information they could use to make up their own minds.

The coverage was so dismal that we organized a coalition of groups, many of which are represented here tonight, to file a formal petition with the FCC challenging the renewal of the licenses of commercial TV stations in Milwaukee. That petition is before you now.

It is our hope that this license challenge will help shine light on the marketwide failure of Milwaukee TV stations to serve the public interest by meaningfully informing the public about election-related issues. We also hope this challenge can generate heat that will produce improvement.

Milwaukee broadcasters have failed the community they are supposed to serve. We look to the FCC to hold them to account for this failure. Thank you once again for making the trip to Milwaukee to hear our concerns.