Hey, FCC: OK?

What First Amendment? What Public Information? And What's News in Brooklyn?

When the Radio-Television News Directors Association gave its First Amendment Leadership Award to Liberty Corporation president Jim Keelor earlier this month, he told attendees at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, "It's somewhat ironic that about the time I found out about this award, I was in the process of making a decision which ignored the First Amendment." That decision: He ordered several ABC stations not to air Saving Private Ryan, which raised indecency concerns because it features gory violence and soldiers cursing.

Why'd he do it? "It was because the FCC refused to issue a definitive statement that the rebroadcast was content-acceptable," Keelor told the March 10 gala.

Asking the FCC to "issue a definitive statement" sounds a lot like asking the government to pre-approve materials for broadcast—an odd thing for a guy getting a First Amendment award. Is that what Keelor meant?

"I certainly am not looking for pre-government approval for anything to air," Keelor tells the Voice. "The point is this program had already been through this process once," and the FCC had OK'd the movie. But that decision was before the Janet Jackson breast and Bono F-word incidents changed the atmosphere at the commission. When the rebroadcast of the movie was being mulled, the FCC was silent on whether it stood by its earlier decision, Keelor says, and that's why he preempted. Ultimately, the FCC ruled that the movie was acceptable.

Keelor's rationale might irk First Amendment purists who argue that asking for or waiting for any kind of government green light is surrendering precious liberty. But the reality, Keelor says, is that "there are no givens anymore" on what a station can broadcast without risking a potentially devastating fine. A new federal indecency bill carries up to $500,000 in fines for an indecent incident during a live broadcast. The result: "We changed the way we do live shots," Keelor says. Anyone feel a chill?


Slow death

Sunshine Week (March 13-18) had the media spotlighting the increasing difficulty of obtaining government information. But a panel last week sponsored by the Independent Press Association-New York revealed that the issue isn't as simple as government flacks' denying the press access to everything. The change has been subtler, says El Diario/La Prensa editorial-page editor Evelyn Hernández: "Government officials just seem a lot more comfortable about saying 'No' or saying 'I'm not sure' or making us wait." And for reporters on deadline, running out the clock is a good way to make a story go away.

While federal freedom-of-information rules seem to have tightened in recent years, the local situation is more complex after Rudy Giuliani's departure, with the Bloomberg administration conducting a more open but still tightly controlled information policy. City Limits editor Alyssa Katz told the IPA-NY panel that while Bloomberg spokespeople call you back more often than their Giuliani predecessors did, it is nearly impossible to get them to let you talk to the city workers who actually put policy into practice. At the same time, "the Giuliani years have never ended at some agencies," Katz says. An IPA-NY survey of some of the city's ethnic newspapers bears that out: It found that while only 10 percent of respondents report having a hard time getting info out of the City Council, a solid 48 percent described dealing with the NYPD's press office as "difficult."


Shock and ow

As the media commemorated the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq last week, Robert Jereski was marking two years since his pre-war skirmish with a cameraman working for WABC-TV. Jereski was protesting the looming war on March 14, 2003, outside the United Nations, where Channel 7's five o'clock news was broadcasting live. Standing behind reporter Joe Torres, Jereski held up a sign that read, "Stop Bush." "The camera guy just raced up from nowhere," recalls Jereski, and slammed him to the ground. Jereski, who claims he suffered soft-tissue damage in his leg, has sued, seeking half a million, but says he'd settle for less than that and an apology. "It's like a caricature of how the media dealt with dissent before the war," he says of the incident. The station had no comment.


The good old daze

From the Dodgers to Saturday Night Fever, and Pete Hamill to Spike Lee, Brooklyn is the national epicenter for nostalgia. So when former Newsday reporter and city editor (and current Voice contributor) Paul Moses convened a panel discussion on the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Brooklyn Eagle last week, the audience was abundant in gray hair and reminiscences. Long Island University professor Joseph Dorinson, for one, wondered when kids today were going to get back to listening to Bing Crosby, to which the ever irascible Jimmy Breslin barked, "Why would anyone want to go back to Bing Crosby?"

There was also some tough criticism of how the Manhattan-based dailies cover Brooklyn today. Some in the audience argued that Brooklyn needs the kind of voice that died with the Eagle. But Ray Schroth, a Saint Peter's College professor (and friend) who claims a family connection to the Eagle and penned a history of the paper, noted that even the good ol' days of the Eagle weren't always so good. The Eagle saw itself as "a class newspaper," Schroth said, meaning upper-class. "They were as guilty in their time" of missing parts of Brooklyn's story, Schroth said. "They were not aware of the population shifts, the waves of immigration."

More recent waves of migrants have spawned dozens of ethnic and community newspapers that offer the kind of block-by-block coverage no large daily provides. "You never have to ask yourself, 'Is it important?' at a community newspaper," said Patrick Gallahue, who worked in community newspapers before moving to the Post. At a daily, he said, "You have to recognize how that story is going to transfer."

Would folks agree on what news mattered to all of Brooklyn? Breslin and Dorinson were arguing all the way out the door—not about Bing, but about the Dodgers. Of course.

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