Removing the Public From Public Files

The FCC is currently considering a proposed rulemaking to radically change the content of the public files maintained by broadcast stations. Within the last few years, the agency has deliberated and approved changes in the way public files must be kept: everything’s moving online now, which will ostensibly make both maintaining and browsing public files easier on broadcasters and the viewing/listening public.
The migration of public files online is happening gradually; television stations went first and now radio stations are following on. Radio stations in the top 50 markets must make their public files available online by no later than June 24th. Public files contain a plethora of information about any given station; for commercial broadcasters, this includes station engineering specifications, hiring practices, political/public-interest programming, and correspondence with the public directly.
It’s that last requirement, having been on the books since 1973, that’s on the chopping block. As of now, public correspondence to a TV station is not included in its online public file, out of privacy concerns for those writing the correspondence. Therefore, stations must maintain physical copies of all correspondence, which stymies the goal of total paperlessness for the public file. Other arguments for eliminating public correspondence from public files exist, including the dubious claim that social media makes this requirement obsolete. Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, whose idea this is, has even suggested that keeping a physical public file of any kind compromises the security of broadcast stations (a highly dubious claim).
In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking itself, the FCC asserts that eliminating the public correspondence component of the public file makes sense because it represents an unnecessary administrative burden, especially since it only applies to commercial broadcasters — the insinuation being that they are unfairly singled out by this mandate. “The goal of this requirement was to ensure that broadcasters comply with their public interest obligation to air programming that is responsive to the needs and interests of their community of license,” writes Media Bureau staff. “[W]e do not believe it is necessary to require that stations retain and make available to the public the letters and e-mails they receive regarding operation of the station to ensure that the station meets its obligation to the local community. . . .We request that commenters explain how any benefits of either eliminating or retaining local correspondence rules would outweigh any potential costs.”
Sadly, there already seems to be consensus among the Commssioners that getting rid of the public correspondence component of commercial stations’ public files is a good idea. Thanking Commissioner O’Rielly for his deregulatory vigilance, Chairman Tom Wheeler commented that this rule change will “enable. . .broadcasters to lock their doors and redeploy resources once used to help the public access the file at the station.” Commissioner Mignon Clyburn thinks “a social media post on a broadcaster’s page can be far more impactful than a letter or an e-mail sent directly to a television or radio station’s office.” And Commissioner Ajit Pai asserts that “[t]here is little, if any, connection between the [public correspondence] requirement and its purported goal of ensuring that a station serves its local community.”
Elimination of this component of the public file effectively cuts any literal manifestation of the public out of the mix. It’s specious for Commissioner Clyburn to assert that posting a comment or complaint to “a broadcaster’s page” on Facebook or Twitter is a better option today — stations regularly scrub those platforms of negative comments or take them to other channels of communication, such as e-mail. The whole point of collecting public comment to commercial broadcasters is precisely to look for patterns of operational behavior that are detrimental to the public interest, in addition to examples of claims of egregious conduct that may also run counter to the public interest. Similarly, complaining directly to the FCC is highly unlikely to result in any meaningful action, especially since the agency has no meaningful enforcement resources available nowadays, nor does it have the capacity to collect and organize one-off public comments like those involving a particular broadcast station.
Without access to these archival materials, members of the public who do wish to dig a little deeper into the behavior of their commercial broadcasters are deprived of an important tool in their endeavors. Public correspondence with WLS-AM, for example, is the linchpin in our ongoing investigation into the FCC’s attempted foray into the regulation of journalism. Getting rid of the public correspondence requirement of commercial broadcast public files is another move toward eliminating certain data elements from the regulatory process in favor of others; public feedback matters little in a regulatory environment nearly exclusively driven by economic ideals and metrics.
The concerns of privacy and administrative burden are also canards. Considering that broadcasters and Commissioners already apparently agree that the influx of public correspondence to commercial stations is paltry at best, just how much of an administrative burden would be involved in protecting the identities of members of the public? You can avoid privacy concerns entirely by making it expressly clear to those who may correspond with commercial broadcast stations that their identities and concerns will become part of a public record. That would free stations of the duty to redact or otherwise edit public correspondence in any fashion.
Finally, Commissioner O’Rielly’s initiation of this proposal under the guise of security concerns is laughable. We must protect broadcasters from threats of physical intrusion, goes the argument. Yet in the next breath, O’Rielly and his colleagues joke about the relative rarity of public visits to commercial broadcasst stations. So let us permit stations to “lock their doors” from what threat, exactly?
To date, no comments have been filed in this NPRM, but since it hasn’t been published in the Federal Register yet, a comments-deadline hasn’t been set.