News organizations ask Federal Election Commission to change debate rule

Thursday, April 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Several news organizations that sponsor debates are asking federal election officials to change a rule they contend improperly meddles with news judgments about which candidates they invite.

The petition filed Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission is prompted in part by challenges TV stations and newspapers are increasing facing from minor-party candidates denied a spot in their debates.

To avoid having debates counted as illegal corporate campaign contributions, news organizations now must follow ``pre-established objective criteria'' in deciding which federal candidates may participate.

The FEC rule does not spell out the criteria, but notes that nomination by a particular political party cannot be the sole factor in a candidate's inclusion in a general-election debate.

A federal agency or court ``should not be reviewing the decisions of news organizations as to whether the public is better served by a debate between the two leading candidates or whether you should also have to include these five other candidates,'' said CBS attorney Howard Jaeckel.

``It's a news judgment and it's for journalists to make, not the government,'' he said.

FEC spokesman Ian Stirton declined comment, saying the commission does not discuss pending petitions.

Ralph Nader, the Green Party's 2000 presidential nominee, said the FEC's action will let voters ``see if its intent is to restrict debate to the two-party duopoly and their Republican and Democratic candidates, or to expand it'' to include more diverse views, larger audiences and third-party challengers.

Jaeckel said several complaints were filed against CBS-owned television stations by minor-party candidates in the past few elections. The criteria the stations use when inviting House or Senate candidates to debate varies from standing in polls to public prominence to stands on prominent issues, he said.

He noted a minor-party candidate's unsuccessful effort to get the FEC to override WCBS-TV's decision not to include him in a Senate candidate debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Rick Lazio.

President Bush's recent signing of a new campaign finance law makes this a good time ``to put this to rest,'' Jaeckel said.

The new law leaves it to the FEC to create a new rule on debates or keep its old one.

Former Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan said networks' campaign coverage decisions should be treated as a contribution to the political parties and candidates.

In 2000, Buchanan and Nader fought their exclusion from nationally televised debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Nader's lawsuit against the commission goes on trial in Boston next week.

The commission, founded by the Democratic and Republican parties, only allowed candidates with at least 15 percent support in national polls to participate. Nader and Buchanan did not qualify.

``If 100 million people could have seen me debate Al Gore and George W. Bush, I think a significant slice of them would have taken a good second look at the Reform Party candidate,'' Buchanan said.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and a former FEC attorney, said the commission rule is not just aimed at major broadcasters. One problem is how broadcaster is defined, especially in these days of the Internet and cable, he said.

``If you open up the door, you could see a lot of organizations claiming they're broadcasters'' and staging debates, Noble said.

Based on the FEC's history, it is unlikely it would find that a major network made an illegal contribution based on a debate it sponsored, Noble said.

The last time in recent memory the FEC stepped into such a complaint came in 1980, when it threatened action over a New Hampshire newspaper's decision to invite only Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to a GOP primary debate. The newspaper pulled out and Reagan helped pay to hold the debate.

Those making the FEC request Wednesday include CBS Broadcasting, American Broadcasting Companies Inc., Belo Corp., Cox Enterprises Inc., Gannett Co. Inc., the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Broadcasting Co. Inc., News America Inc. and The New York Times Co.

Others include Post-Newsweek Stations Inc., the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Tribune Co.