Broadcasters beware

Lawmakers say lingering finance reform issues still have teeth

A group of lawmakers largely supportive of the industry warned broadcasters Monday not to drop their guard on campaign finance reform.

Although broadcasters blocked the Torricelli amendment, which would have required stations to give federal candidates deep discounts on campaign ads, the reform that passed contains new obligations for broadcasters and there is a renewed fight brewing on mandated free airtime for those seeking office.

"Beware of that one; it's next," said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Rep. Gene Green, a California Democrat, said that broadcasters could better fend off future threats by making sure they provide substantial coverage of political campaigns. If lawmakers' reaction to ABC's flap over David Letterman and Nightline
is any indication, though, new campaign reform burdens remain a possibility.

Although members of Congress don't want to take sides in the news vs. entertainment debate, they may be forced to, they say. "Were going to react if there is a public outcry," Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told his NAB 2002 audience. "There becomes a concern with members of Congress about whether information is getting to the electorate?" added Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).

Broadcasters worried that preserving news programs will hurt their profits need to find creative new ways to present public affairs programming said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas). "You need to offer a product that can compete and not abandon the field."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a critic of the recently passed reform law, called on broadcasters to repay the deference given to the industry by helping to "reform the reform." The bill puts new restrictions on soft money and negative advertising that Issa and others say infringe on many groups' First Amendment rights.

As for complying with the new finance reform law, the FCC is still reviewing whether new rules are necessary, but in the meantime stations will face some new obligations.

For instance, they must retrain advertising staff to determine whether candidate ads qualify for the "lowest unit rate" stations charge candidates for federal office.

Under the new rules, ads qualify only if they do not mention an opponent or, if an opponent is mentioned, they feature the sponsoring candidate's photo for at least four seconds simultaneously with a readable, printed statement confirming approval of the broadcast and that his or her campaign committee paid for the promotion. If it is a radio spot, the candidate also must personally identify himself and the office sought.

Stations also must place in their public file disclosure of all requests to purchase broadcast time for candidates or for spots that communicate a message "relating to any political matter of national importance."

All request notices must remain in the file for two years. The information must include whether the request was accepted or rejected; rate charged for any aired ad, the date and time of the request, the class of time purchased, name of the candidate and office sought, and the name of the person and organization attempting to purchase time.