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CAMPAIGN-COMMUNICATIONS Aug-9-2004 (1,020 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10. xxxn

Campaign '04: Communications issues rank low on candidates' agendas

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Trying to find communications policy issues in the George W. Bush and John Kerry campaigns is like trying to find public service programming on a commercial TV or radio station. It's barely there.

Just as network affiliate clearances for Catholic Communication Campaign-produced religious specials shrink from year to year, the presidential campaigns' stances on communications and culture has dwindled over the past dozen years.

Rap music took center stage briefly in the 1992 campaign, as the song "Cop Killer" from rapper-actor Ice-T's rock group, Body Count, was vilified by cultural critics, and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton took rapper Sister Souljah to task for her militant raps.

In 1996, Sen. Robert Dole, the Republican nominee, blasted the movie industry. In 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the Democratic nominee for vice president and a persistent critic of what he called "trash TV," was chided by his political opponents for muting his criticisms during the campaign.

This year, with the exception of the occasional rallying cry about hooking up rural America to the latest technological advances in communication -- one plank in the Democratic Party's 2004 platform -- the candidates and their parties have been silent about communications issues.

Part of that could be because there is not much over which the two parties can disagree. Last year, after an avalanche of letters and e-mails, there was broad bipartisan support for repealing new Federal Communications Commission rules that would have allowed greater consolidation of media ownership; those rules were later repealed by a federal court.

This year, Congress has again shown bipartisan support in cracking down on broadcast indecency after last February's Super Bowl halftime show "wardrobe malfunction" in which singer Justin Timberlake exposed singer Janet Jackson's breast before tens of millions of viewers.

Partisan voting patterns in Congress, though, were clearly visible when the Senate Commerce Committee voted this summer -- almost completely along party lines -- to lift restrictions on the use of low-power FM radio. The U.S. bishops supported lifting the restrictions. Of the existing low-power FM stations, there are about 50 that have a Catholic focus. They cost about $20,000 to start, and about another $20,000 a year to maintain.

The National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful lobby in Washington, had successfully pushed four years ago for a moratorium on low-power FM licenses while the FCC conducted a study on interference with existing FM signals. The study found no interference issues.

Still, while all Democrats on the committee voted for the bill, it needed one Republican to OK the bill. It found that vote in Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a Catholic. But Katherine Grincewich, on the staff of the U.S. bishops' Office of General Counsel, lamented the work necessary just to get a seemingly minor bill out of one committee in one chamber of Congress.

The U.S. bishops listed their concerns on communications issues in the quadrennial statement on political participation, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," issued last year.

"Communications play a growing role in society and family life," the bishops said. "The values of our culture are shaped and shared in the print media as well as on radio, television and the Internet. We must balance respect for freedom of speech with concern for the common good, promoting responsible regulations that protect children and families.

"In recent years, reduced government regulation has lowered standards, opened the door to increasingly offensive material, and squeezed out noncommercial, religious programming," they said.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps, a Catholic and one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC, told Catholic News Service he would like to see broadcasters return to a voluntary code of conduct that barred foul language from the public airwaves and honored the "fairness doctrine." That doctrine, struck down by the FCC in the 1980s, mandated public-interest programming and equal time for opposing points of view on political issues.

In "Faithful Citizenship," the bishops said, "We support regulation that limits the concentration of control over these media; disallows sales of media outlets that attract irresponsible owners primarily seeking a profit; and opens these outlets to a greater variety of program sources, including religious programming. We support a TV rating system and technology that assist parents in supervising what their children view."

Grincewich noted the FCC was seeking comments on three separate issues: localism in broadcast content; a requirement for broadcasters to make and keep tapes of their programs in case a citizen complains about a show's content; and violence in TV programming. But the deadline for receiving written comments on the issues fell within three weeks of each other, making it difficult to assemble the kind of broad support often needed to make policy changes at the FCC.

"Faithful Citizenship" also addressed growing computer usage.

"The Internet has created both great benefits and some problems. This technology should be available to all students regardless of income," the bishops said. "Because it poses serious dangers by giving easy access to pornographic and violent material, we support vigorous enforcement of existing obscenity and child pornography laws, as well as efforts by the industry to develop technology that assists parents, schools and libraries in blocking out unwanted materials."

Federal courts have struck down congressional efforts thus far on keeping computer porn out of minors' sight.

Grincewich said congressional leaders are considering for next year a revision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which set into motion the current wave of media consolidation.

She added her office is monitoring proposed changes in copyright law that could severely restrict provisions of "fair use" of copyrighted materials that extend to classrooms and even photocopier use.

It may be possible for the church's position to prevail on these and related communications issues.

LaVita Strickland, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Government Liaison, expressed dismay at television coverage of the Democratic National Convention in July.

"This is going to be the most important election in my lifetime," Strickland said, but "the type of coverage -- the horse race, rather than the issues people care about -- does not help elevate the level of political discourse."


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