Who's the fairest debate sponsor? Court will decide

From the presidential contenders to candidates for local school boards, political hopefuls across the country are studying up to dazzle voters in public debates.

But the question arises: Who should sponsor these debates - TV broadcasters, or an independent third party, such as the League of Women Voters? The issue is being decided by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

In November the Federal Communications Commission ruled that radio and television broadcasters may sponsor debates between candidates of their own choosing without violating federal law. This was a change in the FCC's policy stating that outside of news coverage, broadcasters must give equal time to all candidates.

The commission declared that debates may now be considered ''on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event,'' and are therefore exempt from the equal-time policy. In the past, political debates had to be sponsored by a nonpartisan third party. Broadcasters could cover them, but they had to be carried live and in their entirety.

Groups such as the League of Women Voters objected to the FCC's turnaround, and appealed the decision. League president Dorothy S. Ridings says the debates must be held ''in an environment that is not tainted by even a hint of bias.'' Broadcasters have commercial interests as their first priority, she says, and some stations even officially endorse candidates. Credibility and public trust are vital to the success of debates, she says.

But William Kennard, assistant general counsel of the National Association of Broadcasters, asserts there have been no cases of favoritism in broadcasters' coverage of debates. ''We have the facilities and the expertise to (hold debates),'' he says, ''and we wanted to do this in house.''

Mr. Kennard says the league is showing a ''parochial interest to keep the debates to themselves.'' Ms. Ridings agrees that is is a change for the league to be fighting a case in which there is a ''clear self-interest.'' But, she argues, the public's perception of broadcasters is not favorable, and independence of sponsorship is important.

''Distrust of the press is overstated,'' Kennard says. The public will be better served by the broadcasters and will trust the integrity of trained journalists, he adds.

Why, he asks, is the league so certain that a third-party sponsor such as Rotary club or the Sierra Club would be any more impartial than broadcasters? Ms. Ridings admits there are ''no perfect debate sponsors.'' But ''we don't have anything to sell.''

Ernie Schultz, executive vice-president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says a debater agrees to certain ground rules, and he won't enter a debate at a TV station that has endorsed someone else unless he knows the rules are fair.

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