Bills seek to protect preachers on educational channels

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FCC members Furchtgott-Roth (left) and Tristani testified for and against the bills.

Though the FCC backed off quickly, conservative members of Congress are pushing bills to make sure the commission doesn’t try again to restrict religious broadcasters’ use of noncommercial educational radio or TV channels.

The problem for pubcasters is that the legislation could make it hard for the FCC to protect education in the reserved channels, opponents say.

The House telecom subcommittee expects to mark up legislation in mid-May [2000], says Ken Johnson, spokesman for subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.). The subcommittee gave a friendly hearing to religious broadcasters’ testimony April 13 [2000].

The latest House bill, the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act, would forbid the FCC to require the users of educational channels to air certain amounts of programming with “educational, instructional or cultural purposes,” or to determine that religious programming does not meet those purposes.

The bill — H.R. 4201, introduced April 6 by Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering (R-Miss.) and now co-sponsored by 125 members — also says the commission can’t impose any programming requirement on reserved educational channels that are not imposed on commercial broadcasters. This provision appears to conflict unintentionally with numerous FCC rules that restrict commercialism on educational channels. [Text of H.R. 4201 and bills with similar purpose.]

That apparent error indicates how “hastily” the bill was drafted, says opponent Jerold Starr, executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. “It makes the reservation of frequencies totally without justification.”

“The bills are an absolute disaster for noncommercial educational broadcasting,” says Starr. “They’re an attempt to remove all standards in order to serve the special interest of a small minority of religious broadcasters whose programming is not educational, does not serve the entire community, and is often politics masquerading as religion.”

Supporters of the bills frame the issue as “broadcasters’ rights versus an oppressive federal agency,” he adds. “What they leave out is service to the community.”

The Coalition to Defend Educational Broadcasting, an ad hoc group organized by Starr to oppose religious broadcasters’ incursions into reserved channels, will meet this week to plan strategy against the bills.

APTS, which originally decided not to get involved in the issue, is now considering responding to the bills, says spokeswoman Nancy Neubauer.

The legislation grows out of religious broadcasters’ angry reaction to the commission’s attempt in the WQED case last December to set down guidelines requiring that more than half of airtime on reserved channels be used for “an educational, instructional or cultural purpose.” Little more than a month later the FCC voted to vacate its “additional guidance.”

In the April hearing, subcommittee Chairman Tauzin backed the Pickering bill and blistered the FCC for adopting its guidelines without seeking public comment or opening a rulemaking. “It always seems to find a way to impose its will, whether or not it’s the will of Congress,” he said.

E. Brandt Gustafson, president of National Religious Broadcasters, agreed later: “Bad ideas in Washington never seem to go away.”

“The most chilling moment at the commission was when staff asked me if I wanted to review videotapes,” said FCC member Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who opposed the FCC guidelines. “I will never support any move to have the government be put in a position of deciding whether programming fits in one pigeon hole or another.”

He zinged the FCC’s now-defunct December guidelines, which said that historical teachings about religion would count as “educational,” while exhortations about faith would not count. That means, he said, that “if you believe what you’re saying about religion, you can’t say it on the noncommercial band, but if you don’t believe what you’re saying, you can.”

Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, commented about the FCC guidelines: “Under their definition, a sermon by Dr. Billy Graham would not be educational, but a program featuring Howard Stern would be.”

Gloria Tristani, the only FCC member to vote in favor of keeping the guidelines in January, was alone again at the witness table. Educational channels should be used to serve an entire community and not used for a single religious group, she said. Tristani did not deny that some religious programming can be educational, but she noted, “What might be educational for me as a Catholic, might not be educational for some of my staff who are Jewish.”

Republicans badgered the Democratic FCC member. Rep. Cliff Stearns (Fla.) accused Tristani of being “the FCC czar of information,” who would favor programs that inform viewers about “collecting pet rocks” over those that advocate the Ten Commandments. Pickering claimed Tristani was “favoring one set of speech and prohibiting another.” The FCC’s December ruling illustrates “the classic liberal tendency to get through government or court decisions what this country will not tolerate.”

Besides Pickering’s bill, the House has the shorter January bill by Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), H.R. 3525, which specifically sought to void the FCC’s December guidelines. In the Senate, Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) introduced S. 2215, which would keep reserved channels open for any purposes that tax laws allow for nonprofits.


. To Current’s home page
. Earlier news: The FCC’s December 1999 ruling grew out of a complex deal with a religious broadcaster devised by WQED, Pittsburgh.
. Related legislation: Texts of House and Senate bills introduced January-March 2000.
. Outside links: Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, which opposes the legislation. Also: Furchtgott-Roth’s House testimony.

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