Journalists enhance political debate

Monday, June 15, 1998

While it would be unthinkable for the government to try to restrict the number of newspapers, the number of radio and television stations has been regulated by a federal agency since 1927. In 1969, in the case of Red Lion vs. FCC, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government must control the number of broadcasting licenses given out because there are only a finite number of broadcast frequencies available, and this number is smaller than the number in demand. The court also said that broadcasters who were granted licenses would become public trustees of a frequency, and so would be responsible for giving a reasonable amount of air time to those with opposing views. In broadcasting, the court said, “It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, that is paramount.”

mericans love long shots and underdogs, but they rarely vote for them.

Despite the growing political and cultural diversity of this nation, the two-party system remains strong. As each Election Day approaches, most races involve just two viable candidates.

That poses a question for television stations putting together candidate debates. Do they invite just the front-runners or is there a legal obligation to invite everyone running for an office, even if some can only count on the votes of their immediate families?

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state-owned television station can exclude lesser candidates as long as the decision not to invite them is based on objective criteria — including their inability to win — and not on the content of their political speech.

The case involved a 1992 decision by the Arkansas Educational Television Network to exclude a candidate from a televised congressional debate. Ralph Forbes, a third-party candidate with little funding and no significant support, was excluded by the network because he had no realistic chance of winning the election.

The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld that decision, saying the television debate was not a public forum and the network staff had the right to exercise journalistic judgment in excluding candidates.

“They overturned the First Amendment,” Forbes told The Associated Press after the ruling. “It’s very Orwellian. It’s very chilling. It ought to scare the hell out of everybody.”

Overturned the First Amendment? Not at all.

The First Amendment protects the public from the government. It limits governmental intrusion into our speech, press and religious practices. In this case, the Supreme Court essentially said that TV stations have a First Amendment right to exercise editorial judgment in putting together a televised political debate. The government could not tell the station whom to include in its programming.

This was a particularly complicated situation because the television network is owned by the state of Arkansas. Forbes clearly believed that the government itself was limiting his free speech by denying him access to the program.

The Supreme Court’s decision has widespread implications for televised debates and the political process across this country. Most of the nation’s noncommercial stations are licensed to state and local governments. They’re also the most likely to sponsor political debates of this kind.

Inherent in the court’s decision is recognition that journalists add something of value to the political process. Treating the televised debate as a public forum would mean that all comers would have a right to their share of airtime. By applying journalistic standards, fewer candidates are invited, but the discussion can be richer.

The court’s ruling may well mean more debates and a better-informed citizenry. As this decision suggests, free speech is critical to the political process, but so are context and content.