Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 17, 1985, Page 5


Challenging Bias in the Media

By Mitchell Kaidy

If you are a typical reader of this newsletter, you know a lot about U.S.-Mideast economic or political relations, or about the internal affairs of Arab-American or Jewish-American groups in the U.S. Regularly, you see misstatements of fact in your daily newspapers, or hear distortions or misrepresentations on local radio or television shows. So what do you do about it if, like me, you feel that most of the printed and broadcast media are controlled, if not actually owned, by those who espouse a no-questions-asked, pro-Israel line?

There are techniques and leverage points that can be exercised to deal with distortions in the media. And the editors in your town may be more in the category of unquestioning dupes than knowing perpetrators of misinformation. It may, therefore, be worth the effort to test your own ability to make your viewpoint heard. But first you should familiarize yourself with the newspaper or radio station you want to reach.

You should also be aware of the legal differences that govern the media. The printed media, for example, enjoy the broad freedoms that flow from the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits any abridgement of a free press. Anyone, it has been said, who can afford it can publish a daily newspaper. Essentially, this means that the printed media can publish anything—no matter how erroneous or misleading—as long as it is not libelous.

Broadcast Media Regulations

The broadcast media, on the other hand, are not so free. Because the number of broadcast outlets is theoretically limited, Congress decided to license them as well as to ensure their performance in the public interest. The results were regulations such as the Federal Communications Commission Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule.

Let's start with a newspaper in which you read a news story, column or editorial that you believe is inaccurate, misleading or just wrongheaded. Your first task is to sit down and analyze what's wrong with it. Facts inaccurate? Conclusions unsupported by the facts presented? Sources prejudiced or unattributed?

Once you confirm that you have unearthed important inaccuracies or misrepresentations, you must decide how long a response is required to correct the record. If you believe you can encompass your response/ correction in some seven or eight paragraphs, write a letter to the editor. Be timely, specific, factual, rational, and unemotional. Cite sources. Do not attempt to make more than three or four main points. Keep your sentences and paragraphs clear and short. If at all possible type the letter and use double-space between the lines.

if your response requires more than seven or eight paragraphs, you should consider writing a signed, Op-Ed article. Stripped to its essentials, an Op-Ed (opposite the editorial page) article is nothing more than a long letter. But before essaying an Op-Ed article, it's a good idea to sound out the editorial page editor.

Be prepared to outline your case for space to write an article that could range up to 1,000 words (about the length of this article), or four typewritten double-spaced pages.

Many Op-Ed articles are contributed by academics, government officials, and prominent persons. If you know someone you can collaborate with, do so, and, with permission, use the better-known person's name on the article, with or without your own.

What if you follow these steps but your letter or article doesn't appear within two weeks of the time you mailed it? In that case, call the responsible editor and discuss it, reasonably and unemotionally. If he or she says your piece is no longer timely, offer to re-submit an updated version "pegged" to a more current development. If all else fails, indicate your continued interest in contributing facts on the subject and, if need be, call again. You probably will break into print eventually. Even if you don't, the editor—aware that he has an informed and committed reader on hand—may deal more cautiously with the facts in the future.

The Fairness Doctrine

In contrast with the printed media, the broadcast media, which are licensed by the federal government, are accountable under the law for public accessibility. Two important guarantors of public accessibility are known as the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule. Equal Time applies only to political candidates, so is less useful than the Fairness Doctrine. The latter holds that on controversial issues of public importance, stations must offer, in their overall programming, a reasonable opportunity for contrasting views.

Unlike the Equal Time Rule, the Fairness Doctrine does not require a radio or television station to provide the same amount of time in the same time period. It does, however, afford an unparalleled opportunity for the presentation of contrasting views—and that opportunity may come free.

Keep in mind that none of these strictures applies to news broadcasts—only to such programs as talk shows, advertising spots, interviews, and editorial opinions. And the Fairness Doctrine only states that a reasonable opportunity must be provided in the overall programming. Non-profit groups, such as the Safe Energy Communications Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Telecommunications Research and Action Center, offer citizens' groups legal assistance in drafting proposals to local stations to present contrasting views.

The broadcast media, like the printed media, are obsessed with timeliness and topicality. If you can assemble a qualified panel on a timely issue, a station may provide time for airing diverse views. Even if the program manager whom you contact doesn't agree with you, he knows that complaints by citizen activists that a station has not complied with important regulations can delay or block the renewal of a broadcast operating license.

Many editorial page editors like some controversy in their columns. It sells newspapers. And in the case of the broadcast media, the law is on your side. The pro-Israel bias in your daily newspaper or on the local radio talk show may be more susceptible to balance than you think. Try it, and get others to help you. Let me know how you do.

Mitchell Kaidy, who founded the Rochester, New York Committee for Broadcasting, recently won free air time under the Fairness Doctrine.