Messengers on defensive

WASHINGTON — Broadcasters have quickly found themselves on the defensive in Congress.

With campaign finance reform all the buzz, lawmakers are suddenly free to unload years of bitterness at having to pay higher and higher election season ad rates, which they say is the prime reason for out-of-control fundraising efforts.

“Television is not just a great wasteland; it’s a killing field,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) says.

Broadcasters are required by the Federal Communications Commission to give candidates a discount, with the reason being that nets and stations are guardians of the public trust, having been given free use of the airwaves.

Turns out the FCC rule has slowly lost its teeth, with broadcasters attaching a list of conditions to the rate cut. Chief among them, a candidate taking advantage of the low-end charge runs the risk of having his or her spot pre-empted.

On March 21, the Senate approved a measure that would require broadcasters to always offer discounted ad rates to political candidates — no exceptions allowed and no conditions imposed.

The 70-30 vote was something of a shock, considering the political clout generally enjoyed by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which makes hefty political contributions, particularly to Republicans.

The broadcasting provision is now attached to the larger campaign finance reform legislation being debated by Congress.

NAB prexy-CEO Edward Fritts is none to happy, saying the Senate’s bill cuts into a broadcaster’s First Amendment right to commercial speech.

Fritts scolds lawmakers for essentially disguising themselves as innocent victims.

“The Senate has voted itself a multimillion-dollar windfall. The amendment will not reduce the cost of campaigns, but rather will unleash a torrent of negative attack ads. Only in Washington can this be called reform,” Fritts says.

Fritts has been fretting for days over a March 6 report released by the Washington-based Alliance for Better Campaigns, which says that election 2000 candidates spent at least $771 million on ads, a record to beat all records.

The report attacked broadcasters for out-and-out “gouging” of candidates.

The NAB says the report is erroneous and misleading, as it doesn’t distinguish ads paid for by candidates and ads paid for by third parties or issue groups. Also, how much of a problem can it be when no politician has filed a complaint with the FCC in five years?

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and some of her colleagues don’t give a hoot what the broadcasters say.

Lawmakers say NAB should count its blessings that they’re not asking for free airtime, pointing out that in most of Europe, broadcasters can’t charge for a candidate’s ad.

“I hope that the American television industry recognizes that this is an effort to have a level playing field, and fulfill what many thought was the bargain,” Clinton says.

Whether the overall campaign finance reform passes Congress remains unclear.

In the meantime, the broadcasters’ refrain is likely to be heard all over town: Please don’t shoot the messenger.

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