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Committed to the First Amendment 4/22/2001 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Through the looking glass

Local broadcasters invoking the spectrum-scarcity argument, disparaging media mergers and asking the courts not to grant more deregulation, while begging the FCC to enforce old rules. What's wrong with this picture? Plenty. We think local broadcasters, specifically the Network Affiliated Stations Allliance, made a big mistake in running to the government with cries that the networks were threatening the public interest and localism and diversity and elections and campaign coverage and Jerry's kids and anything else that would get a regulator's attention.

It's true enough that networks have been playing hardball with affiliates, repurposing network shows on cable and newscasts on the broadcast competition, using network airtime to promote co-owned cable channels and the Web, and cutting back or eliminating comp. But let's face it, the paternalistic model of the network-affiliate relationship is history, replaced with an affiliate-at-will relationship that, frankly, mirrors much of the rest of corporate America. Few companies are giving out gold watches in any industry these days. Broadcasters should be lobbying hard against the newspaper-broadcast crossownership ban so that they can become stronger in a freer market, not arguing for more regulation so they can be better protected in a more restrictive one.

NASA's call for an inquiry into violations of existing FCC rules is tolerable. The law is the law, and stations are entitled to its full protection. But it has gone far beyond that, including asking for a "special staff" with subpoena power that is allowed to range beyond simply adjudicating. It has invoked even the spectrum-scarcity argument to justify re-regulation. The NAB has fought hard and successfully to give broadcasters the freedom they are now afraid of. So afraid, apparently, that they are willing to undercut their historic arguments against content regulation in a single shotgun blast of complaints.

Of course, NAB's fight has come with a caveat: When freedom and protectionism have been placed on the scales, broadcasters have often been more inclined to put their thumbs on the side of protectionism (caving to the useless V-chip in exchange for spectrum comes to mind). We still believe broadcasters do tremendous public service and deserve full First Amendment rights. Protecting "free, over-the-air, local TV" still carries weight in Washington, but it will wear out its welcome as a threadbare cover for protecting the bottom line.

One hand giveth

Even as Attorney General John Ashcroft seemed to be opening one door to electronic journalists two weeks ago, he was slamming another. His decision to allow a closed-circuit feed of the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh at least let the tools of the TV news trade in the door, though he was adamant about the crack's opening no wider. He made that abundantly clear with his decision to ban the video recording or taping of interviews with the condemned man, which showed that the historic prejudice against the electronic press remains. It was clearly an emotional issue for Ashcroft, who recalled the horror of the bombing and talked in a press conference of his desire not to hurt the families, but that does not justify the ban. Ashcroft's avowed interest in "restricting a mass murderer's access to a public podium" rightly drew a stinging rebuke from Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran: "Curtailing access to and news coverage of Mr. McVeigh rocks the very foundation of our democratic society and represses the exercise of a fundamental freedom." We couldn't agree more.

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