Committed to the First Amendment

Putting a Price on the Tragedy

The story goes that Harry Truman wanted to find a one-handed economist because he got tired of hearing "... on the other hand." Well, if we were a one-kneed editorial page, this piece would have taken a dramatically different tack. When we first heard that Viacom was trying to file a 9/11 claim on its insurance (see story, page 16), arguing that it was obliged to forfeit ad revenue to fulfill its public-interest requirement of covering the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, our knee-jerk reaction was "how low can you go." Our second reaction, after much reflection, was that CBS paid for a policy covering business interruptions and, if the loss or some part of it can be covered by that policy, the company likely has a fiduciary duty to make such a claim.

The move is admittedly a potential PR nightmare. But putting a price on tragedy and loss is the business of insurance.

In the "be careful what you wish for" department, a CBS victory will mean higher premiums for everyone, and quantifying public-service obligations could provide ammunition to public-interest groups. Whether the value of the claim outweighs the potential bad press and possible bad precedent is something CBS should also have factored into its cost-benefit analysis.

We haven't seen CBS's argument, but sources say it does not claim any government mandate that CBS cover wall-to-wall but rather says that CBS had an understood course of conduct given its public-interest obligation, as well as its belief that conducting business as usual would alienate its audience.

There is no getting around the queasiness the whole business creates. One palliative might be for CBS to give a fraction of the money recovered to the families of Isiais Rivera and Bob Pattison, WCBS-TV engineers killed in the attacks. Of course, CBS is under no obligation to do so.

The Winning Touch

Even before Jim May had been officially installed as NAB's chief lobbyist in 1988, he had already begun to work the room, having met the day before with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, Telcomsubcom Chairman Ed Markey and a host of other top lawmakers. He hasn't stopped since and, in February, will be taking those skills to the beleaguered airline industry.

May helped the association and the industry win some big battles. Once characterized as unable to lobby its way out of a paper bag, NAB eventually became one of the most successful in town. Witness its success in getting the Robert Torricelli amendment struck from the campaign-finance–reform bill at the 11th hour. You won't win many fights without a good argument, but you can lose some you ought to win if you don't have a skillful advocate. With re-regulatory forces gaining traction, NAB has some big shoes to fill and the sooner the better. Maybe cloning isn't such a bad idea after all.