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Thursday, October 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
The late Chief Justice Warren Burger once remarked that "free speech carries with it some freedom to listen." And, he might have added, the freedom not to.
That would be a good thought for the Democrats to chew on this week, before they say some things they might regret. This is an election season after all, and fuses are predictably short. But when 18 of them, including Ted Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein and Patty Murray decided to file complaints with the FEC and the FCC to stop the airing of an anti-John Kerry film, some people got goose bumps.
The issue, Democrats say, is that Sinclair Broadcasting, owner of 62 stations, would violate the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance laws governing this election. The film, preempting normal programming, would supposedly amount to a contribution to the George Bush campaign. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called the move a betrayal of the public trust that networks are given along with their portion of the spectrum. The government, ergo, should step in to control the editorial content offered by news stations.
This is a very dangerous path to wander along, even if you do have bread crumbs. If we decide that campaign-finance laws may have a veto over what Americans may or may not see during their evening news hour, where exactly do we draw the line? If political shows say, Rush Limbaugh or Air America Radio or "The O'Reilly Factor" are quantified as partisan, could they too amount to political contributions from their respective broadcasters?
We've seen two very different philosophies in play on this issue recently. With the release of the anti-Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11," Republicans ranted and raved and called the film a sack of lies and filmmaker Michael Moore a commie propagandist, sure. But they never even hinted that his right to produce it or Americans' right to see it should be proscribed.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats have lamely defended their position on the distinction that people had a choice whether or not to see "Fahrenheit" and they had to pay for it. "Stolen Honor," by contrast, will automatically appear on their televisions, and for free!
With apologies for the remedial observation, broadcast networks and movies in the theaters operate on two different business models network programs are "free" because the broadcasters make their money from commercials, while moviegoers offer up a direct ticket price. The difference between Bob and Harvey Weinstein's model distributing the Moore film and that of the Sinclair brothers distributing the Kerry film is a market one not a matter of any relation to the government, or campaign-finance law.
Certainly, as any ratings-sweep-obsessed network exec will tell you, nothing on television is "compulsory" in the way McAuliffe is suggesting. And, far from the era of three network stations dominating, vast majorities of Americans now can access hundreds of cable or satellite stations from their clicker. Unless Democrats are planning to go out and break the thumbs of couch potatoes across the land, Sinclair's affiliates will be just one choice as they are every night.
No one is contesting the political agenda of the Sinclair brothers, though reasonable people might say the film merits network attention on the basis of pure newsworthiness. While Democrats have tried to fit the genuine, ancient anger of Vietnam vets against Kerry into the matrix of Bush "dirty tricks," any reporter with half a brain should have figured out long ago that this is one of the great, novelistic themes of the election. What goes around comes around, at least as long as anyone who remembers is still living. And it basically has nothing to do with Bush.
Anyway, the political biases of the Sinclair family pose no threat to American democracy precisely because we have a free media. All networks could run slanted news stories but they don't. And why? Because the market values objectively reported stories that's what sells, brings advertising and so on.
This column, too, is political opinion, so I'm free to say this: The Kerry campaign is desperate to proscribe the film because it addresses the most damning and sticky characterization of Kerry, that he is an opportunist as much today as he was back in the Vietnam days when he conveniently became an antiwar leader. It is this quality that sticks in people's craw: not that he was a mediocre "war hero" or whatever other charges were leveled against him, but that he is a serial sellout. His inconsistency is calculating, and ultimately cruel.
More politically salient, the Democrats' actions this week have undercut large parts of their own campaign-finance arguments, including those they had upheld by a divided Supreme Court. To those who objected to the stringent reforms on First Amendment grounds, the party was vehement that money could be regulated because "money is not political speech" and so not worthy of protection.
So tell us, senators, if "Stolen Honor" is not political speech, what exactly is it?
They seem to be saying a film documentary is really "money" and thus can be regulated. If so, every broadcaster and publisher in the country has reason to worry.
Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at email@example.com
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