Committed to the First Amendment
Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/22/2001 8:00:00 PM
The sound of one hand clapping
Broadcasters are heaving a huge sigh of relief. They will continue to rake in those hundreds of millions of dollars worth of issue ads around election time, and they won't have to provide the deeper discounts that the campaign-finance-reform bill would have mandated.
NAB was sweating it out as the legislation headed for a critical procedural vote in the House two weeks ago as the discount amendment hung tough despite calls for its removal by high-powered legislators. The conventional wisdom holds that the amendment remained as a poison pill to help kill the whole package, but some broadcasters were fearful that, if push came to shove, it might survive. It didn't come to that. The bill went down in that procedural vote, which gave everyone some cover.
Broadcasters were by no means alone in their opposition to the bill. The ban on issue ads before elections is clearly an unconstitutional suppression of speech. It would prevent all groups, the NAACP as well as the NRA, from using the media to speak to the issues. The bill's backers pointed out that people could still hold up signs and send out flyers. Yes, but that would hardly be comparable.
Still, it's difficult to applaud the continued failure to address the issue of campaign-finance reform. A victory for broadcasters? Definitely. A victory for the American public? It sure didn't feel that way.
Tough act to follow
Former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who died last week at age 84, was what every news organization, print or electronic, should have: A publisher who cares as much about the top story as about the bottom line.
She also knew firsthand the potentially chilling effect that the government's licensing power represents for large media companies. In her case, it was the Nixon administration. According to Graham, when the Post, which also owned five broadcast stations, chose in 1971 to run with the Pentagon Papers story, the administration informed Graham that the paper faced criminal prosecution, adding that "papers with criminal decisions against them could not own television stations." Then again, during the Watergate investigation, three of the company's broadcast licensees were challenged, apparently by Nixon cronies.
Lesson one: Government officials are not above using license-renewal muscle to control content. The Nixon gang's methods were particularly egregious, but more-subtle efforts may be the more troubling for being gloved in velvet, or at least not brandished like a club. Lesson two: In an era when many media are under pressure to make money first and news second, it's worth remembering, and saluting, someone who was willing to eschew the safe haven of legal-department cover for the exposed position of standing on principal.
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