Saturday, October 21, 2006

Equal time for equal partners

is an ideal that has never worked--not in the United States, and certainly not in the Philippines. The definition alone of "equal" will provoke a long and interesting discussion, even today.

As for the so-called "equal partners," there will always be partners more equal than others. Even in yesterday's communist countries, this reality was respected, at the same time that each partner tried everything in his power to dip the scale in his favor or, failing that, push the more equal out of the scene.

But never was the principle as frequently placed under the microscope as during the chaotic years of the Vietnam War. The emotions that exploded during the period made the dissection of "equal time"truly a very noisy, prolonged, and contentious one.

"Impressions," TV Times, 19-25 March 1978


The air was electric with the heat of a summer night and the excitement of a brittle wait. The images that flickered from the small screen into our darkened room had neither the memorability of drama nor the vitality of history. It was the daily journalistic wrap-up on News Today, a spare and rather middling close to a spare and rather middling half hour of the day's news on television.

But the news was, after all, not the main event for the night, not the reason for our anxious and early drive home. The reason was to come after the newscast, in the special edition of Face the Nation, which must have fazed Metro Manila at least. It was to give them their first media sight in five years of a candidate running for the Interim Batasang Pambansa while in detention at Fort Bonifacio.

As it was, the 90-minute program, when it did come, was a smooth, competent television job. There was no technical brilliance in its production, nor was any expected. Television, in special instances, is often overcome by the sheer intensity of the situation in which it finds itself. Which reminds me of the particular political controversy US television confronted in 1970.

Sometime in January of that year, then US President Richard Nixon requested all four American networks for television prime time. He went on air at 9 p.m. EST, spoke for 10 minutes and, in full view of all Americans who happened to have their television sets on at the time, whatever the channel, vetoed a highly controversial bill that had passed an opposition-dominated US Congress.

In immediate response to the exercise of the presidential prerogative, congressional leaders hostile to the Nixon stand on the bill in question asked the networks for equal time to answer. They did not get that time.

In the course of his ill-starred administration, Nixon was to use the same prerogative--and prove himself to be very adept at it--many more times, most frequently during the height of the Vietnam War.

Congress, naturally, felt itself compelled to strike a balance somehow. In a statement entitled "Equal Time for Equal Partners," then US Senator William Fulbright wrote: "Unfortunately, Congress is at a great disadvantage in the war powers debate, as it is in discussing most issues, because the Executive has a near monopoly on effective access to the public attention. The President can command a national television audience to hear his views on controversial matters at prime time, on short notice, at whatever length he chooses, and at no expense to the federal government or to his party ... Communication is power and exclusive access to it is a dangerous unchecked power." Fulbright's recommendation was legislation that "might require the networks to provide broadcast time to the President whenever he wishes it and might give the same right to Congress."

Outside Congress, the American people were divided on the issue of "equal time." A professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, analyzing 103 hours and 44 minutes of ABC newscasts in 1969 and concentrating on 16 major news categories, found that: 1) news tending to support the administration viewpoint totaled 14 hours and 35 minutes; 2) news tending to take the opposite view totaled 9 hours and 35 minutes; and 3) neutral news totaled 13 hours and 37 minutes. Administration spokesmen enjoyed a 4-1 margin over the opposition as far as exposure of faces and words was concerned. Elmer Lower, president of ABC News, who had commissioned the study, admitted that "any sitting administration enjoys such an advantage."

Caught in the middle of it all, the networks presented alternate proposals. Don Hewitt, then executive producer of CBS's 60 Minutes, suggested that the president, except in emergency situations, should be telecast by a single network on a revolving basis. Equal time would then be given to opposing viewpoints immediately after, and automatically. The other networks would billboard the president's appearances but would offer alternate programming when he was on the air. Other proposals were received from the other networks, purporting to turn over air time for entities to use or misuse, increasing the time allotments for news and public affairs operations, or charging the Federal Communications Commission with full authority to decide the issue.

More than anything else, it was perhaps US Television which felt its character deeply challenged during that time. There was a president using the medium with great success and great impunity, a Congress exacting the same right, individual politicians expecting to get air time as long as they have money, the FCC trying hard to be fair above the Fairness Doctrine, and the American people demanding that the networks give them the reassurance that their journalistic functions were not susceptible to any inside or outside pressures--political, economic, or social.

Unfortunately, according to the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Survey of Broadcast Journalism, "the day-to-day performance of the networks and individual broadcasters has not always given this reassurance."

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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