Free-time pressure renewed

Election reform panel asks for airtime; Rep. Waxman demands NBC hand over election video

Yet another high-profile group is pushing broadcasters to offer candidates free airtime as part of an overall plan to revamp the election process. Elsewhere, the battle of words escalated between a powerful congressman and top NBC executive Andrew Lack over a tape purporting to show election-night influence by GE Chairman Jack Welch, influence that the network flatly denies.

The National Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended that national TV networks provide five minutes of prime airtime nightly to each qualified presidential candidate in the 30 nights leading up to general elections. That could mean as much as 15 minutes per network per night.

The commission, co-chaired by former Presidents Ford and Carter, released a report on a number of ways to improve the election process in the wake of the hotly contested presidential election and the highly criticized news coverage of that night. Those recommendations included preventing news organizations from projecting presidential election results while the polls remain open in any of the 48 contiguous states and imposing a uniform poll-closing time or withholding official tallies from news organizations until 11 p.m.

While not endorsing any of the specifics, President Bush said he would "accept their report and recommend the key principles drawn from the report as guidelines for meaningful reform."

Although the networks have said they endorse uniform poll closings, they are unlikely to voluntarily offer much free airtime, although CBS's O&O's last year did offer state and national political candidates a collective five minutes of free airtime each night in the month leading up to the general election.

"We oppose federal mandated free time," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "We encourage our stations to voluntarily provide coverage of elections. We think, by and large, most stations do an excellent job covering elections. One of the consistent problems in offering candidates free time is getting them to appear."

Candidates—particularly leading candidates and incumbents—often reject offers of free time because they don't want to make a gaffe and lose their lead, Wharton asserted.

But Paul Taylor, executive director for the Alliance for Better Campaigns, said that's no reason for the networks not to make the offer.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) also has a bone to pick with network campaign coverage, at least NBC's.

He and NBC President/COO Andrew Lack are locked in battle over an alleged videotape that supposedly shows GE Chairman Jack Welch telling NBC News brass to call last November's election for Bush. Waxman has been writing Lack letters trying to get the tape since the House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings on the networks' election coverage last February.

Unhappy with Lack's response to a July 11 letter, Waxman last week wrote Lack a fourth letter, reminding him he had sworn under oath to give the committee any relevant documentation. Waxman gave Lack until Sept. 4 to turn over any internal videotapes or Waxman would be "required to seek other means of compelling" them.

Lack didn't respond again last week, but in his July 31 letter he said to Waxman: "Your continued pursuit of videotapes and unfounded 'rumors' cannot be explained by any objective view of the facts. These 'rumors' are simply absurd."

But Lack also implied in an April 20 letter to Waxman that a tape exists: "[I]t would be highly inappropriate for us to share any such tapes with the government. There is no basis for a news organization to turn over material dealing with its editorial decision-making."

Even with the threats, Waxman's power to get material from NBC may be limited because a subpoena would have to go through House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Tauzin would be interested in seeing any tapes Waxman obtains but "has absolutely no intention of issuing a subpoena at this time. We take Mr. Lack at his word," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.