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NAB's crackdown on leaks threatens sunshine tradition 1/07/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The National Association of Broadcasters has always been a fairly open organization, particularly considering its position as one of Washington's most effective lobbies. It has made no secret about where it is going and kept few about how it intends to get there. This must be disconcerting for the public-interest groups since it doesn't fit with their image of lobbies as well-cloaked conspiracies against the commonwealth.

NAB's chief spokesman Dennis Wharton does a fine job getting out the association's message and putting out the PR fires that continually smolder and occasionally blaze. Yet, he doesn't try to get between reporters and the NAB staffers. Most, from President Eddie Fritts down, are accessible and comfortable talking with the press.

Reporters have not been permitted into NAB's board meetings, but they have been invited to the board's dinners and cocktail parties where they can pump directors for what went on behind closed doors and pick up gossip to color their stories. All told, the openness has been a great tradition that has earned NAB more good ink than bad over the years.

The openness stands in stark contrast to the National Cable Television Association, which is reluctant to tell you where its board is meeting, let alone invite you to come and hang out. NCTA also has the great advantage of having a relatively small executive committee making the real decisions. It's run more like a corporate board than an association board.

Unfortunately, the NAB tradition is now threatened. When the board gathers in Carlsbad, Calif., this weekend, some directors may be more reluctant to open up than they have been in the past. Last week, the general membership voted on (and presumably passed) a board-approved change in the by-laws that empowers the board to boot off any of its members for leaking information.

Here's the actual language: "While directors may take positions that differ from the position of the Association, they shall not in so doing utilize non-public information or data that they obtained through their service on the board."

Another new provision puts teeth in the above. By a simple majority vote, the board may kick out any director it determines has violated the no-leak rule. And lest you think this is a lynching, the provision stipulates that the alleged offender "shall be permitted to speak in their own behalf before a removal decision is taken." Now, that's due process.

Such provisions are intimidating, especially for directors who hold seats reserved for station groups or networks. They will have their intended effect of discouraging directors from talking out of school. And NAB will have successfully shut out some of the sunshine that has set it apart from other lobbies and, I am sure, kept it out of trouble on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department's antitrust division.

If the NAB board is doing something that it doesn't want on the cover of BROADCASTING &
CABLE or the front page of the New York Times,
for that matter, it shouldn't be doing it.

I have to concede that trying to do business-any kind of business-with the press hovering right outside the door is not easy. But just about every political organization in the nation from the town council to Congress somehow manages. So can the NAB.

The NAB doesn't represent widget manufacturers. It represents media-news organizations-that fight a continuing battle for access to officials, public records and courtrooms and against laws and regulations that discourage anyone from speaking freely. In that light, it seems more than a little bit hypocritical for the NAB to try to gag its own members.

What's been the damage of the leaks the NAB is now trying to plug? Not much, as far as I can tell. Perhaps some embarrassment each January when we and sometimes others print all or part of the association's budget. Perhaps NAB doesn't like to advertise the fact that it makes oodles of money off its annual Vegas trade show-$26 million on revenue of $37 million, according to the Jan. 27, 2000, issue of BROADCASTING &
CABLE. That kind of money will inevitably attract competition.

I'll be in Carlsbad for the board meeting this weekend-next to the shrimp, sipping a Mexican beer. Any board member interested in testing the new provision should come over and say hello. I'll be discreet.

Jessell may be reached at jessell@cahners.com or 212-337-6964.

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