D.C. CIRCUIT–The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in mid-August that the Federal Communications Commission must reconsider a petitioner’s claim that CBS “intentionally distorted” a 1994 news story which gave the impression that Ukrainians are anti- Semitic. The FCC must reexamine the record and explain more fully why it will or will not hold a hearing. Ultimately, the FCC must determine if the charges would cause it to deny CBS’s application to acquire the license.
Alexander Serafyn, a retired American of Ukrainian ancestry who lives in Detroit, petitioned the FCC in October 1995 to deny the CBS application to acquire WGPR in Detroit after he watched “The Ugly Face of Freedom,” a “60 Minutes” segment which he said gave the impression that Ukrainians harbor a strongly negative attitude toward Jews. When the FCC rejected his petition he appealed to the court. The Detroit station is now WWJ-TV.
Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote for the appeals court that the FCC acted arbitrarily in not analyzing more precisely the evidence Serafyn gave that a news segment was distorted. The court found that the evidence was at least sufficient to present a substantial question of fact and that the agency did not sufficiently justify the decision not to set a hearing for the license renewal.
The FCC held Serafyn’s petition to the wrong standard by requiring him to demonstrate that CBS had actually distorted the news rather than to raise a substantial question of fact, the court wrote. It also said that the Commission must consider the evidence as a whole rather than requiring that any single evidentiary item show distortion.
In his petition Serafyn rebutted several claims from the broadcast and also showed that CBS had no policy against news distortion.
The FCC in November 1995 had summarily denied his petition without any hearing. Quoting from an earlier case, the FCC called rigging or slanting the news “heinous,” but said, “in this democracy, no Government agency can authenticate the news, or should try to do so.”
Serafyn said the Communications Act requires that a successful license applicant serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” The segment on Ukrainians was so distorted that CBS had reneged on this obligation, he said.
In the segment, Morley Safer suggested that Ukrainians were “genetically anti-Semitic” and “uneducated peasants, deeply superstitious.” In its ruling the FCC described a soundbite from an interview with the chief rabbi of Lviv as giving the impression that he believes Ukrainians want Jews out of Ukraine. It also noted that CBS overlaid the sound of marching boots on a film clip of Ukrainian Boy Scouts walking to church and introduced it in such a way that viewers got the impression they were seeing a “neo-Nazi Hitler Youth- like movement.” And it said that throughout CBS translations of interviews with Ukrainians it translated “zhyd”, which means “Jew,” as “kike.”
The FCC said it would only consider news distortion as affecting the granting of a license when there is evidence of the distortion outside the broadcast itself and the distortion involves a major event in the news report. Outside evidence might include indications of bribery or written or oral instructions from station management.
The court also affirmed the Commission’s denial of Serafyn’s petition to revoke CBS’s existing licenses, saying that the Commission’s decision in that matter was reasonable. (Serafyn v. FCC; Counsel to Intervenor CBS: Richard Wiley, Washington, D.C.)