NTIA letter, Repeal or Modification of the Personal Attack and Political Editorial Rules
The Honorable Reed Hundt
Federal Communications Commission
1919 M Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554
Re: Repeal or Modification of the Personal Attack and Political Editorial Rules, GN Docket No. 83-484(1)
Dear Chairman Hundt:
I am writing to express the views of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the above-captioned proceeding. NTIA, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is the principal adviser to the President on telecommunications and information policy issues.(2) In addition, the President has directed NTIA to coordinate the activities of the President's Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters.(3)
This proceeding poses the question of whether the Commission should retain its personal attack and political editorial rules. These rules serve important functions. The political editorial rule provides free time for candidates to respond to broadcast licensees' editorial endorsements and opposition.(4) The personal attack rule is of more limited applicability, providing the opportunity for reply, free of charge, to certain attacks on individuals' honesty and integrity.(5) The latter rule affords a constructive, efficient, and inexpensive remedy -- more speech -- to resolve problems for which the only other alternative may be expensive and onerous libel and defamation actions.
We understand that Commission must act by August 7 under the terms of the order of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.(6) Given the short time remaining and the fact that we are now poised on the threshold of the digital television era, we urge the Commission to retain these rules at this time. We understand that the Commission may soon implement an inquiry into the issue of digital broadcasters' public interest programming obligations. That upcoming docket would be the more appropriate and useful context within which to examine the future operation of these two rules. We believe this is the better approach for at least three reasons.
First, this upcoming docket will examine in a comprehensive way the nature and extent of broadcasters' public interest obligations in the digital television era. We believe that this is the better docket to resolve the complex constitutional, policy and statutory issues that surround these rules. Moreover, any current Commission action to repeal these rules could constrain the Commission's ability to act in that proceeding. Second, in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress made clear that broadcasters' public interest obligations will continue into the digital era.(7) The Commission has not yet had the opportunity to articulate the exact nature of these obligations.
Third, addressing these issues in the public interest rulemaking will also allow for input from the President's Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters. The Committee, which includes members of the commercial and noncommercial broadcasting industry, computer industries, producers, academic institutions, public interest organizations, and the advertising community, will report to the Vice President by June 1, 1998, regarding the public interest obligations it believes digital television broadcasters should assume.
Retention of these rules at this time does not, of course, preclude modification or repeal if the Commission were to revise broadcasters' public interest obligations in the course of the forthcoming proceeding.
The personal attack and political editorial rules should be retained at this time so that the Commission, the Committee, and the public can fully and fairly debate the merits of the rules in the digital era.
Thank you for consideration of these views.
cc: The Honorable James H. Quello
The Honorable Susan Ness
The Honorable Rachelle B. Chong
1. Repeal of Notification of the Personal Attack and Political Editorial Rules, GN Docket No. 83-484, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 48 Fed. Reg. 28295 (June 21, 1983). The Commission sought to refresh this docket in December of last year. See Public Notice, Updated Comments Invited Regarding the Personal Attack and Political Editorial Rules and Related Pleadings, DA No. 96-2159 (rel. Dec. 19, 1996). Subsequently, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the Commission to act upon the petition of the Radio-Television News Directors Association to abolish the personal attack and political editorial rules by August 7, 1997. See Radio-Television News Directors Ass'n, No. 96-1338, 1997 U.S. App. LEXIS 6015 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 7, 1997).
2. 47 U.S.C. §§ 901 et seq. (1996).
3. Exec. Order 13038, 62 Fed. Reg. 12065 (1997).
4. 47 C.F.R. § 73.1930 (1996).
5. 47 C.F.R. § 73.1920 (1996).
6. Radio-Television News Directors Ass'n, No. 96-1338, 1997 U.S. App. LEXIS 6015 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 7, 1997).
7. Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 55 (1996) (codified at 47 U.S.C. § 336 (1996)); see also H.R. Conf. Rep. No. 104-458, at 55 (1996).