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Behind a screen of public interest Big oil promotes big oil By Bill Fenton Washington, D.C. Many television and radio stations seem to broadcast as much advertising as programing, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that the airwaves are public property. The Federal Communications Commission, in the public’s name, licenses private networks and allows them to sell air time to advertisers. All of this is supposed to be done with the public interest foremost in mind. But now some of the largest corporate advertisers are going on the air to peddle more than their wares; they are using radio and TV to sell their political views as well. Maybe you’ve seen the Texaco ad that shows a man putting together a jigsaw puzzle, each piece said to represent a phase of the oil business. Or maybe you’ve seen Chevron’s spot on ABC, which offers this punch line: “With our facilities linked together we can keep our costs down for you.” Then there’s the Mobil ad, even more to the point: “Some people want to break up the oil companies. We say it would reduce efficiency, leading to less supply and higher prices.” `Fairness doctrine’ All of these ran last year as the U.S. Senate was considering legislation that would require vertically integrated oil companies to divest certain of their holdings. The ads were not geared to the companies’ products. but to their politics. Those on the other side of the divestiture issue were not heard because they couldn’t afford national prime-time advertising and were refused free access to the airways by the three commercial networks. At stake is the right of the viewing and listening public to have all sides of a major national issue explained and not just the version of reality offered by those rich enough to buy air time. Under broadcasting’s “fairness doctrine,” born in 1949 with the FCC’s milestone report on “Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees,” television and radio stations are obliged “to devote a reasonable amount of time to the coverage of controversial issues of public importance; and to do so fairly by affording a reasonable opportunity for contrasting view 16 The Texas Observer “To get you the gasoline and oil you need, a lot of complex pieces must come together very efficiently. Such as finding oil in places where no one has discovered it before, constructing huge pipelines, building complex refineries that make many different types of petroleum products, supplying these products to thousands of outlets in cities and towns and rural areas across the country to meet your energy needs. Fortunately, an oil company like Texaco is in all phases of the business, so it can line the complex parts together efficiently and economically. It took a great many years to build this organzation, and it’s these various pieces working together that permit a company like Texaco to do its job for you. When you see the whole picture, you realize how well Texaco does the big and complex job of supplying the oil and gasoline you need. At Texaco, we’re working to keep your trust.” points to be voiced on these issues.” The problem is that the FCC’s definition of “controversial issues of public importance” is extremely narow, and few of the hundreds of fairness complaints filed have been upheld by the commission. At last, though, there has been a breakthrough by public interest advocates into the tight little world of broadcasters and advertisers. On April 12, the FCC ruled that the fairness doctrine applied to the Texaco divestiture ad. The case was brought last August by a Washington-based group, Energy Action Coalition, with the support of Sens. missioners ruled that WTOP-TV, Washington’s CBS affiliate, “had incurred a fairness obligation” after heavy use of the Texaco spot. WTOP was given ten I suppose you’ve seen ads like these in your newspaper, in your magazines, same kind of thing on television. The oil companies are spending a lot of money on advertising, trying to sell us their version of this energy crisis. They’re selling the idea that they should make the big decisions about energy, because they have our best interests ar heart. And they’re trying to sell us on the idea that it’s alright for us to sacrifice, while they make bigger profits. Well, big business has tried to sell the American people on many things in the past. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. days to come up with a plan to air opposing views; on April 21, station officials announced that free air time would be given to prodivestiture spokesmen, probably from EAC. Granted, last month’s FCC decision is only a partial victory. EAC had also complained about the ad’s appearance on NBC and ABC affiliates, but without success. What saved NBC and ABC was their relatively restrained use of the puzzle ad NBC ran it four times, ABC three. The FCC found that the two networks had balanced their programing with ample coverage of the prodivestiture view. But when WTOP, having broadcast the ad 53 times, argued that divestiture wasn’t a controversial issue last winter and spring, when the presi Text of a Texaco TV spot Partial text of an EAC TV spot