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Machiavellian move? - Broadcasting & Cable

Machiavellian move?

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Nice try, Bill. That seemed to be broadcasters' basic reaction to the FCC's suspension last week of the personal-attack rule and the rule requiring stations to give on-air reply time to opponents of candidates endorsed by them.

FCC Chairman Bill Kennard said he hopes the suspension, which extends past the November elections, will foster more political debate on TV stations.

Big-market station groups contacted last week said they don't endorse candidates. But some actively encourage the practice, said Mark Millage, news director at KELO-TV Sioux Falls, S.D., who is chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Millage likes the idea of being allowed to endorse candidates without the reply-time obligation. "It provides an alternative voice. In our state, it's basically one newspaper that renders an opinion, and the broadcasters have to sit on the sideline and let that one voice be the voice that counts."

If the rule goes away permanently, Millage said, his station will consider doing endorsements. But the FCC "has set up a test that is destined to fail" because it gives broadcasters only a month to set up a process that newspapers have had in place for decades. "It can't be done overnight, if you're going to do it right," he said.

Many station executives echoed Joel Cheatwood, vice president of news for the CBS Stations, who acknowledged that stations "need to be more diligent in ensuring that all the issues are explored."

None of the stations owned by the Big Four networks endorse candidates. And neither Cheatwood nor sources at NBC, ABC, FOX and Hearst Argyle see that changing. None of the groups contacted last week said they would consider a group endorsement of the presidential candidates.

Although Cheatwood doesn't expect any of his stations to get into the endorsement business, he stopped short of saying CBS stations would be forbidden to endorse candidates. But, he said, "they'd have to present a good case" for such an endorsement. He also said he hadn't had a single call from a station on the issue.

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