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FCC Suspends On-Air Rebuttal Rules

October 5, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal rules that require broadcasters to give candidates a chance to respond to personal attacks and political endorsements have been suspended for the duration of the 2000 campaign.

Over the vehement objection of its Republican members, the Federal Communications Commission put the rules on hold, saying that the election season offered ``an ideal time to determine how broadcasters are affected by the political editorial rule.″

The regulation requires TV and radio stations that endorse a political candidate to notify and give free rebuttal time to the candidate’s opponent. The other suspended rule requires broadcasters to provide politicians or other private citizens with air time to respond when they have been attacked during a program.

The FCC also said it would seek comments on whether to expand the scope of the rule in giving parties a right of reply to broadcasts.

Broadcasters howled at the possibility that the commission review could lead to a revival of a now-defunct provision called the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air multiple viewpoints when covering issues and allowed parties to complain to the FCC.

``We are saddened that politics takes a higher priority than the Constitution,″ said Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters. ``It is outrageous that the FCC refuses to discard tired regulations that stifle free speech rather than enhance it.″

``It is incomprehensible that the FCC would choose not only to perpetuate the decades-old cat-and-mouse game it has played over the personal attack and political editorial rules, but also to suggest the resurrection of a long-dead policy which takes away journalists’ editorial discretion,″ said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Public-interest advocates said they hope the FCC review yields a framework to ensure broadcasters provide fair coverage. But they did express some concern about the suspension of the rules during the election season.

``There will be some instances in which the public will be left with a one-sided view of the elections,″ said Andrew Jay Schwartzman president of the public interest firm, the Media Access Project. ``That’s unlawful and unfortunate.″

NAB and RTNDA had challenged the decades-old FCC rules, arguing that they were unconstitutional and no longer needed given the growth of cable, satellite TV and the Internet as sources of news and information.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia returned the issue to the commission seeking further justification for the rules.

On Wednesday, the commission said it would use the 60 days to test the validity of the claims made by broadcasters, who argued that the rules have a ``chilling effect″ on programming and deter stations from presenting editorials.

Specifically, the FCC asked broadcasters to provide evidence at the end of the two months on the number of political editorials run compared with previous election cycles and the extent to which broadcasters editorialize on topics unrelated to political campaigns.

FCC Commissioners Susan Ness and Gloria Tristani, who support retaining the rules, said they would consider modifications to reduce the burden on broadcasters. For example, a candidate may have to request reply time from the station, rather than expect to be offered it in advance of an editorial or endorsement.

The commission also wants broadcasters to provide information on complaints about personal attacks made during the 2-month period, even during news interviews or other programming currently not subject to the rule.

FCC Commissioners Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Powell, who sharply dissented from the decision, chided the majority for trying to ``quantify″ the impact of the rules on free speech and said the action could have been taken months earlier.

``To my mind, the cat-and-mouse game that this agency has played ... is unconscionable,″ wrote Furchtgott-Roth. ``By now, the commission should and could have explained how it continues to find the rules to serve the public interest.″

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