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Broadcast Journalists Fire Back

The White House, the courts and the Federal Communications Commission all took hits from broadcast journalists Thursday night, who said they were feeling under fire from a manipulative and even malicious government.

NBC News President Neal Shapiro set the tone, telling a roomful of top journalists gathered for the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation awards dinner in D.C. that the press is under attack as never before from the executive and judicial branches, which he says are pursuing journalists with "actual malice" just for doing their jobs.

It's time to "sound the alarm," he said. That call was picked up by other speakers and punctuated with applause from the crowd.

Shapiro cited Jim Taricani, the reporter for NBC-owned WJAR Providence, R.I., who was convicted of contempt by a federal judge for failing to reveal a source. Only a heart condition kept him out of prison, said Shapiro. Taricani is on six months house arrest.

"This is what reporters do," Taricani told Shapiro after the conviction. But facing arrest should not be part of the job description, said Shapiro, who took the opportunity to push for a federal shield law, which the Radio-Television News Directors Association and several legislators are championing on Capitol hill.

Shapiro attributed some of the repressive climate to frustrated  governmnent officials who, having failed to please their superiors, take it out on journalists. But he also cited "a handful of scandals" that have tarred the broadcast industry and a post-9/11 climate that contributed to the crackdown. He advised journalists to do a better job of showing themselves as reporters, rather than entertainers.

ABC's Sam Donaldson, master of ceremonies, said he had never seen such "vitriolic animus" toward journalists, save for the waning days of the Nixon administration. Donaldson said he hears commentators from the right and left trying to convince the public that the mainstream press cannot be trusted. It's time to "fire back," he said.

Donaldson said he wasn't advocating suppressing commentary, punctuating the point with: "Let every flower bloom." But he suggested that if some flowers were blooming thanks to a load of manure, that should be pointed out, too. "They should have to answer to those who think they got it wrong."

Veteran CBS newsman Ed Bradley took up the charge in his acceptance speech for the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award (named after the late B&C correspondent).

Bradley talked of the pressure by government and corporations to "control the message," saying journalists must fight those efforts. "There is a price to pay," he said, for representing the people.

For his part, Liberty station group President Jim Keelor, winner of the First Amendment Leadership Award, had a bone to pick with the FCC.

He told the audience that at the same time he was notified of the award, he was making the seemingly First Amendment-unfriendly decision not to air Saving Private Ryan on his ABC affiliates.

Sixty-six ABC affiliates preempted the Veteran's Day airing of the film, saying that they could not be sure its four-letter words would pass muster with the FCC.

It wasn't for the potential fine, said Keelor, adding "We had some spare change." It wasn't the five stations he had up for renewal at the time, he said, adding "though that thought did cross my mind." It was to send a message to the FCC that the indecency crackdown has gone too far. "The FCC is getting more political every day," he said.

In the wake of Janet Jackson, said Keelor, there are some at the commission who want the TV world to look like Ozzie & Harriet and Leave it To Beaver, while pay TV, by contrast is "getting a pass."

Broadcasters in recent weeks have increasingly pointed to the disparity between the regulation of broadcast and cable indecency. Some have advocated cracking down on cable and satellite if broadcasters can't shed their own indecency yoke, though Keelor did not go that far.

The result of the post-Janet craziness, Keelor said, is that live TV, including news,is threatened. He pointed out that some local TV newscasts are tape-delayed and said live shots are being re-thought for fear of somebody flipping the bird.

If the crackdown continues, he said, broadcast networks will be second-class citizens. For First Amendment and business reasons, said Keelor, "we can't let that happen."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.