Latest path around soft-money ban: Buy a TV station

National Rifle Association's latest plan for getting its message across could change the face of US journalism.

What does the NRA have in common with NBC? Not much so far, but the National Rifle Association has been talking in recent days like a media conglomerate.

Last week, NRA president Wayne LaPierre hinted that the group for gun owners would consider buying a TV or radio station to get its messages across if the Supreme Court upheld new federal restrictions on the financing of political campaigns. A few days later, the justices did just that, supporting regulations that, among other things, forbid last-minute political ads from independent groups like the NRA.

The building of TV network that makes Mr. LaPierre as recognizable as Tom Brokaw remains a long way off - and the path could be fraught with financial and regulatory challenges. But experts say the campaign finance ruling creates a very real impetus for lobbying groups to find new, still-legal ways to communicate politically. Even in a media environment already saturated with opinions and polemics from Bill O'Reilly to Michael Moore, this represents a shot heard round the nation.

To some, the prospect of networks run by the NRA - or Al Gore for that matter - raises worries about a growing injection of bias into the reports that Americans rely on to make judgments about government and public affairs.

Media experts say that in this harshly partisan era, any new political network is about as likely to air polite and reasoned discourse as it is to rerun old speeches by Adlai Stevenson.

"Everybody's out there shouting," says American University professor Leonard Steinhorn, a former Democratic speechwriter. "When people have a remote control, people tend to stop on the most sensational or the loudest form of media they see."

A move toward politicized news networks would be a blast from the past, harking back to the days when American newspapers didn't even pretend to be neutral. "It wasn't feasible in the early clunky days of commercial presses to make money selling newspapers, so political parties subsidized them," says Calvin Exoo, a media expert at St. Lawrence University.

The NRA isn't the only group with a political agenda seeking a direct path to the American airwaves.

By next spring, a group of Democrats including Al Gore hopes to launch a talk-show network featuring a caustic mix of commentators and comedians. Proponents say they're buying several radio stations in big cities, although the price tag could run past half a billion dollars, considering that major market stations can cost $100 million a piece.

If successful, the effort could change the media landscape. Outside public radio, no liberal talk-show host has a major national profile. Perhaps the most successful is Fox News commentator Alan Colmes, whose radio show debuted on just 10 stations earlier this year. On the other side, there are so many conservative hosts that they fill the lineups of five of the 35 top-rated radio stations here in San Diego.

Lobbying groups - even the NRA with its 4 million members - face considerable barriers to entry in the media business.

Money is the most obvious obstacle to the creation of an NRA Network (or Howard Dean Channel or Bush Broadcasting Company). Even a tiny radio station with barely more power than a blow dryer can cost $15 million. On the television side, $1 billion may not be enough to reach half the markets in the country. By contrast, Republicans have raised about one-tenth as much - $110 million - to support the reelection of the president.

"Talk [about owning a broadcast station] is cheap for the NRA or anybody else," says Leland Westerfield, a media analyst with Jefferies & Co. "One wonders whether donors would think that is the best possible use of funds."

Then there are the potential threats of legal challenges and, perhaps worst of all, dismal ratings. Even so, political groups on both sides of the aisle are salivating at the prospect of staking out chunks of the broadcast world.

SINCE the days of its politicized past, American journalism has developed standards of objectivity and tried to banish opinions to the editorial pages. But things are changing again, "partly because of the multiplication of channels and deregulation and the end of 'equal time,'" says Dan Hallin, communications expert at the University of California at San Diego.

Media experts say the so-called Fairness Doctrine fizzled out during the Reagan administration, leaving only watered- down equal-time regulations that exempt news and interview programs. The rules don't apply to networks on cable TV or to satellite radio, where the Sirius company is offering talk-show channels for the "left" and "right."

Some experts advise against owning stations. They point to the family-oriented PAX network, which created a nationwide network by scarfing up dozens of cheap UHF stations and making its way onto cable systems for free. Hardly anyone watches shows like "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye." Instead, experts think the NRA and Gore & Co. should provide programming directly to broadcasters, just like the folks who syndicate Rush Limbaugh. Even then, however, legal challenges will be inevitable if federal election officials consider the programs to be political advertising. "When is an organization an advocacy group and when is it a media organization? This is a sticky and possibly open question," says media expert Bruce Barry of Vanderbilt University. "That may be the next Supreme Court case. These lines have to be drawn."

Of course, all the wrangling in court could be moot if nobody tunes in. No one knows if NRA hunters will tolerate political programming or if liberals will prefer Al Franken to "All Things Considered."

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