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Society Helps Fight Ridiculous FEC Rules on Political Candidate Debates


Bruce Brown
, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or
Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or across@mis.net
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee chairman, 651/642-4437 or ghill@kstp.com

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is fighting the Federal Election Commission on regulations that burden the ability of news organizations to sponsor debates between political candidates without running afoul of federal campaign finance laws.

Under long existing commission regulations, the sponsorship of such debates by media organizations is considered a punishable crime – an illegal corporate campaign contribution – unless the debate participants are selected according to “pre-established, objective criteria.”

SPJ and 12 other organizations – led by Viacom, Inc., owner of CBS – jointly filed a petition today asking the FEC to commence proceedings that would reverse the rule established pursuant to the Federal Election Campaign Act.

The petition was prompted by the filing of two complaints with the FEC by fringe political candidates who objected to being excluded from debates sponsored by local television stations in New York and Boston.

“We seek a common-sense approach that encourages a meaningful exchange of views to help voters make a choice,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. “I have covered many debates in which a token or fringe candidate contributed nothing to the discussion and in fact degraded it by taking time from other candidates. If a news organization, in its sound journalistic judgment, concludes that a candidate would detract from the dialogue rather than add to it, that organization should be free to exclude that candidate, just as it is free to choose the people it interviews for news reports.”

SPJ and the other media organizations argue that the FEC should not, and constitutionally may not, require a news organization to formalize criteria for selecting debate candidates, or apply such criteria in a rigid fashion, as the price of being allowed to sponsor a debate. Such a requirement, the media groups argue, infringes on the independent judgment afforded to journalists under the First Amendment.

The organizations also point out that the current FEC rules conflict with long-established polices of the Federal Communications Commission for candidate coverage and do not logically follow the FEC’s own rulings that media companies do not violate the Act by providing free air time to candidates.

“The FEC thinks it should supplant the decision making of professional journalists with a bunch of bureaucratic rules,” said SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Gary Hill, director of investigations for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. “As is frequently the case, this type of well-intentioned but badly misguided action can have the opposite of its intended affect. We have fewer, rather than more, political debates and the public is poorly served in the process.”

Other media organizations joining the petition were: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.; Belo Corp.; Cox Enterprises, Inc.; Gannett Co., Inc.; National Association of Broadcasters; National Broadcasting Co., Inc.; News America Incorporated; The New York Times Company; Post-Newsweek Stations, Inc.; Radio and Television News Directors Association; and Tribune Company.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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