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Capital Watch

No Regs on Attack Ads in '04

Controversial non-profit groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and others funding TV attack ads on the presidential candidates will continue full speed, despite a new court order requiring a rewrite of campaign- finance rules. Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley Smith says current regulations are all but certain to stay in place though the Nov. 2 vote. "It is literally impossible to have new regulations prior to the elections," he says. It would take more than a month to go through the required public-comment round, and then the rules don't go into effect for 30 days after FEC approval. Besides, an expected commission appeal would enjoy solid legal footing, he predicted.

Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other sponsors of the legislation have generally said the law and the ensuing regulations have accomplished the intended effect, which was to eliminate the gigantic, unrestricted "soft" donations to political parties. Complaints about the controversial "527" non-profits are "a different issue."

Hollings Goes out Swinging

After 38 years in the Senate, Ernest Hollings is leaving, but not without a few parting shots. The Senate Commerce Committee's ranking Democrat, who fought to rein in violent TV programs, cast what likely were his last votes on the panel last week when the committee took up DTV legislation and a host of other bills. Rather than sit peacefully after two standing ovations, South Carolina's senior senator jumped in to defeat Chairman John McCain's bid for a 2009 deadline to reclaim analog TV channels, won approval for $20 million in training for closed-captioners and voted to dump new public-interest obligations on broadcasters—whose lobbyists had just joined in the ovation. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) probably summed up their sentiments by comparing Hollings' retirement to the line in a country song: "I hurt so much now that you're gone, it's almost like you're here."

Indecency Proposal

Extremely violent programming should be declared indecent by the FCC, insists activists at Morality in Media. In response to the FCC's inquiry into possible restrictions on violent programming, the group said violent scenes have no more constitutional protection than do the depictions of sexual or excretory activities already restricted by the FCC. The group also argued that indecent violence should generate a fine no matter what time of day it airs, unlike the current safe harbor allowing such depictions between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. No statute requires a safe harbor, and court rulings say indecency protections should be afforded both children and non-consenting adults, says the group.

Morality in Media's model definition of indecency would restrict "outrageously offensive or outrageously disgusting" violence as judged by contemporary community standards. Severed or mutilated human bodies and parts would also be liable for fines. Shootouts, for example, "especially those purporting to be distant in time," such as cowboy gunfights and Star Wars laser battles, would be excluded. Violence set in contemporary periods should be given less leeway because they are "touchstones that can be more easily imitated," said group General Counsel Paul McGeady. Still, even historical or warfare violence, such as close-up depictions of scalping or mutilation, would go too far.

Battle Brews Over Public-Interest Fare

The Senate Commerce Committee last week voted 13-8 to order that the FCC recommend specific amounts of public-interest programming for TV stations to air. Bill sponsor Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) says the FCC should set guidelines for hours of locally originated, public-affairs and independently produced programming that TV stations should air.

Broadcasters have long argued against specific obligations as an infringement on free-speech rights and insist that burdensome government quotas are a nuisance. Although the quotas wouldn't be mandatory, the FCC would consider a station's compliance when its license comes up for renewal.