Law

AM Hosts Busted for Pushing Anti-Tax Measure

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A Washington State judge has ruled that two radio personalities made the equivalent of campaign contributions when they spent airtime pushing a ballot initiative. KVI radio talk show hosts Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson helped promote the launch of a new anti-tax initiative dubbed Initiative 276. Martin Kaste reports that the radio hosts and free-speech advocates are appealing the decision to the state's supreme court.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, another in our series of conversations about Iraq. We talk with New Yorker writer George Packer. But, first, is talk radio a kind of political advertising? In the case of one Seattle radio station, a state court says yes. The judge has ruled that two radio hosts' on-air support for a political cause amounts to a campaign contribution and should be counted as such. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the implications of this controversial court case.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Last spring in Washington state, a petition drive started to repeal a new gas tax. And if you happened to tune in KVI-AM, you'd hear the drive-time hosts talking about the petition drive a lot.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Check out this Web site here, NoNewGasTax.com, and sign up, make a donation and let's undo this thing. We have six weeks to get the signatures and make this thing happen.

KASTE: Was this journalism or political advertising? Randy Gaylord is one of the four local prosecutors who think the hosts went too far.

Mr. RANDY GAYLORD (Prosecutor): Most talk-show hosts understand what is news and what is commentary and don't get involved in promoting campaigns. What you have here is renegade talk-show hosts going out and trying to hide behind the First Amendment.

KASTE: Gaylord and the other prosecutors sued the anti-gas tax campaign to make it report those broadcasts as campaign contributions. They wanted the hosts' on-air statements counted, assigned a dollar value and reported as donations under the state's campaign contribution disclosure law. The anti-gas tax campaign complied, estimating the hosts' contributions to be worth $20,000. Prosecutors called it a victory for transparency in the world of politics and money.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Announcer: We report. You decide. KVI Talk Radio 570.

KASTE: But that's not how things look from the gleaming studios of KVI, just below the Seattle Space Needle.

Mr. JOHN CARLSON (Radio Host): The precedent stands, there could be real problems.

KASTE: John Carlson, one of the hosts in question, says the court was wrong to classify his on-air comments as advertising.

Mr. CARLSON: At times crusading editors or commentators or columnists have used their time or their space to fight for what they believe in, and I think that's part of what the First Amendment's supposed to protect.

KASTE: Prosecutors say that's an overreaction because the ruling didn't limit what the hosts could say. They say it simply required that the donation of free on-air fund-raising be disclosed to state regulators. But that's bad enough, says lawyer Bill Maurer.

Mr. BILL MAURER (Attorney): The power to regulate is ultimately the power to restrict.

KASTE: Maurer is with the Institute for Justice, a national libertarian organization with the slogan: Litigating for Liberty. He joined the case on the side of the anti-tax campaign, filing a countersuit. He says even if this case looks small, it's still a violation of civil rights.

Mr. MAURER: You get into the death of a thousand cuts, and before you know it, you wake up and your free speech rights have been severely compromised.

KASTE: He says this case is part of a broader national tendency to try to apply campaign finance laws to more and more forms of speech, including new media. His group is especially concerned about a recent federal court ruling compelling the Federal Election Commission to apply campaign finance laws to the Internet. Like talk radio, Internet sites often make no pretense of journalistic objectivity, and they're often involved in fund-raising. Maurer says that makes them a tempting target for campaign regulators.

Mr. MAURER: If they can classify this advocacy as political advertising, it means that they can regulate it under the campaign finance laws, and that's ultimately what this case is about.

KASTE: The prosecutors say this case is not that broad, but others wonder about the implications. Bob Stern is president of the LA-based Center for Governmental Studies. An expert in campaign finance rules, he says most disclosure laws were written 30 years ago, when the media were generally regarded as more objective. And today's more polarized news landscape may undermine the exemptions traditionally enjoyed by media outlets.

Mr. BOB STERN (President, Center for Governmental Studies): As we see more and more publishers, more and more radio stations coming out four-square for something and actually serving as maybe the campaign organizer for it, there will be pressure on the legislators to change the laws to require disclosure. But, of course, there'll be the counterpressure from all the media outlets saying, `You can't do that,' and they're pretty powerful still across the country.

KASTE: In fact, the Seattle media have been quick to attack the judge's ruling in this case. The anti-tax campaign's libertarian lawyer is trying to appeal to the state Supreme Court. The prosecutors say they welcome the appeal because they want to establish a precedent that campaign disclosure laws apply to everyone, even radio personalities. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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