There he goes again

Hundt's support for free political time 'nakedly partisan'

Reed Hundt, the over-regulatory autocratic nemesis of the broadcasting, cable and Bell telephone industries during his term as FCC chairman, is again proposing to trespass on the First Amendment rights of television, the most pervasive and influential news medium.

Hundt's assumption that broadcasters have a legal duty to serve the public interest by providing free airtime for political candidates is not exactly a news flash. There are few regulatory initiatives that my former colleague would not embrace-often with both arms and legs. To borrow from Ronald Reagan: "Reed, there you go again."

But it is somewhat surprising that he would make such a nakedly partisan appeal to support free airtime after being generally chastised for frankly admitting in his post-FCC memoir that he pushed policies while chairman to assist in the Clinton-Gore re-election bid.

Astonishingly, the first reason he lists in support of free time is that the volume of advertising is what matters and that he believes the Republicans enjoy a dramatic advantage in terms of fund-raising. He quotes The New York Times for the proposition that the current financial edge "could help [Bush] win the toss-up states."

In this regard, it is worth keeping in mind that the FCC is a politically appointed body, and everyone should think long and hard before giving it more power for the express purpose of changing the course of elections. It is difficult to understand why Reed's expertise in litigation and advanced technology did not translate into more-objective administration of an independent agency or more reasonable post-FCC proposals.

Hundt frankly admits that his legal and policy arguments to support free time are not new. No kidding! Overlooking the inconvenient fact that Congress has never mandated free airtime, Reed offers two justifications for a free-time requirement:

1) Broadcasters have received more money from political advertising than ever before.

2) Broadcasters were not required to pay the government for their licenses.

His first argument is downright puzzling. Why should the amount of airtime candidates now purchase create an obligation on the part of broadcasters to kick in a free additional bonus? In my opinion, the reference to the amount of time purchased is merely a decoy from the real issue. Hundt's real target obviously is the content of political ads. He points out that negative ads "often serve only to obscure the real choices between the candidates and the parties."

Hundt's second argument, that government can demand free airtime as a quid pro quo for free spectrum, is no more persuasive now than it was when he was chairman. Almost all existing licensees did not receive free licenses. They paid a full market price for their licenses, and, moreover, the licensees provide a vital free service to the public every day.

For the digital transition, Congress wisely made the choice not to charge broadcasters billions of dollars for a loan of digital spectrum later to be exchanged for their analog spectrum, while asking an established industry to expensively uproot itself in order to provide new and better service to the public. Hundt's call to place free airtime at the top of an open-ended regulatory wish list is not the deal that Congress made.

There is one point, however, about which Reed and I can agree. Debates are the best way to clarify the differences between candidates on the issues. But we disagree on the best way to encourage broadcasters to provide such coverage. This should be an editorial judgment by newsmen, not a partisan directive from political appointees.

Historically, robust political debate has been promoted more by the absence of FCC political broadcasting rules than by their enforcement.

This, however, is a lesson to be learned from experience, not from political partisanship.