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Campaign reforms threaten broadcasters’ rights

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From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 32.

From the Summer 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 32.

While the Federal Elections Commission conducts its rulemaking procedures to implement the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 in a staggered process that will conclude by January 2003, the National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the agency in April, alleging that provisions of the act governing “issue advertising” restrict free speech.

The new federal election law bans certain political advertisements that mention but do not specifically endorse a political candidate in the months leading up to an election. Individuals who engage in this type of speech will be subject to criminal liability and the possibility of up to five years in jail.

Broadcasters argue that individuals could be punished for simply urging a politician to vote on proposals. Such restrictions, they said, could create huge blackout periods during presidential election years, after caucuses, primaries, and general, special and runoff elections are factored into the timetable.

Also, these restriction apply specifically to broadcasters while similar speech is permitted in the other media, they point out.

Broadcasters also face another political battle as lawmakers look to reform political campaigns by giving free air time to political candidates. Four lawmakers — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) — unveiled their plan June 19 to introduce such legislation. Legislation is currently in the drafting stages, but should be presented to Congress by the end of the year.

Their bills would require broadcasters to devote at least two hours each week of candidate-centered and issue-centered programming in a yet-to-be-determined time period leading up to an election. At least half of the programming, which would include candidate debates, interviews and town hall meetings, would be aired in or near prime time.

The proposal would allow candidates to qualify for vouchers for television and radio ads based on contributions to their campaigns. Qualifying national parties would also receive a block grant of vouchers every two years to be used to support local, state, or federal general election candidates.

Funding for the voucher program would come from a tax of not more than 1 percent of gross annual revenues on all broadcast license holders.

The plan is endorsed by Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public interest group from Washington, D.C., that seeks to improve elections by supporting campaigns that get useful information to voters. The Alliance for Better Campaigns has assembled the Free Air Time Coalition, a group of more than 50 organizations, including the American Association of Retired Persons, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Public Citizen.

McCain said the free air time provision would let “every candidate have his or her views amply ventilated so voters can make an informed choice.”

At the press conference, lawmakers and supporters of the plan stressed that the public owns the airwaves and that broadcasters have been granted free licenses on the condition that they serve the public interest. Citing a recent study of debate coverage by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a non-partisan research institution in Washington, D.C., the lawmakers said broadcasters’ promise to meet public interest standards often goes unfulfilled.

“Broadcasters have become the leading cause of the high cost of modern politics,”said Paul Taylor, president of the Alliance. “They gouge candidates on ad rates while they cut back on serious campaign coverage.”

In response to the study which claimed that 63 percent of major office debates were not televised, the NAB issued a statement on June 19 calling the report “factually incorrect.” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton, in a letter to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said the study offered incorrect statistics in seven of the 10 states it surveyed.

Broadcasters argue that they have continued to offer politicians the lowest unit charges for the commercial time they purchase, and they offer comprehensive coverage of elections with a combination of news, debates, and public affairs interviews. They also cite instances where candidates have refused their offers of free air time to participate in debates or answer questions.

“One of the constant challenges faced by broadcasters is persuading candidates to actually accept the numerous free air time and debate offers from local stations,” Wharton said. — JLW