The broadcast decision that embroiled Arkansas ETV in a landmark First Amendment struggle ever since 1992 was “a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion,” the Supreme Court ruled May 18. The high court’s 6-3 ruling overturned an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1996 that the state network had infringed House candidate Ralph P. Forbes’ free-speech rights by refusing to add him to the two major-party nominees in a broadcast debate more than five years ago. “This is a great decision for viewers,” and will let the network continue airing candidate debates, said Susan Howarth, executive director of the five-transmitter state network, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The majority opinion gives us as much or more than we thought we would win in our most optimistic moments,” said the elated Richard D. Marks, attorney for Arkansas ETV. Marks had pictured the Circuit Court’s 1996 decision as “a grave threat” to state-owned pubcasters that could undercut their ability to make editorial judgments.
Nebraska ETV canceled a senatorial debate broadcast in August , and Iowa PTV was taken to court last month as the ripple effects of a federal circuit court decision involving Arkansas ETV spread throughout the Midwest’s Eighth Circuit. As it did in 1994, the circuit court had ruled on Aug. 21,  that the Arkansas network had no right to exclude independent congressional candidate Ralph P. Forbes from a Republican-Democrat debate that it was sponsoring and broadcasting in 1992. Richard D. Marks, attorney for the Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska networks, called the decision “a grave threat to public broadcasting.” In the parallel case in Iowa, pubcasters were elated with two rulings last week: first, a U.S. District Court said Oct.
In fall 1992, a number of public broadcasting’s gatekeepers opened their gates to give candidates unedited, unmediated “free time” to talk with the electorate over the air. Here’s a first-hand report on the experience, from two public radio program directors — Dave Becker of WDUQ, Pittsburgh, and Dave Kanzeg of WCPN, Cleveland. We’re here to confess to breaking a few broadcasting rules. They’re not in any FCC handbooks or federal code, but they seem to be universal anyway:
Never break your regular format for politics. Never give up control of your station’s sound to politicians.
Though the 1988 campaign prompted many calls for television networks to let candidates talk directly to the voters, candidates again this season have to buy time or squeeze through the media filter to get on the air. That’s not to say that some producers aren’t trying the idea; the ones who do, however, are finding that their success in presenting candidates in an unedited, nonconfrontational format hinges on the political considerations of candidates, networks and viewers. Voices of the Electorate, the two-part series produced by Alvin Perlmutter’s Independent Production Fund (IPF) and two minority citizens’ groups, is the most visible recent example (Current, Sept. 21). The series aired last month after PBS and the American Program Service ordered last-minute cuts to eliminate Democratic candidate Bill Clinton’s unedited comments, which both distributors deemed ”inappropriate.” APS said Clinton’s remarks didn’t respond to the minority issue discussed in the program.