WASHINGTON — Charges by the Central Intelligence Agency that ABC deliberately distorted a news broadcast and violated federal fairness rules last fall were dismissed Friday by the Federal Communications Commission.
While it rejected the CIA's complaint, the commission underscored the right of federal agencies to challenge the fairness of television news broadcasts.
The CIA had sought reconsideration of a January ruling by the FCC staff that denied the agency's complaints about the network.
ABC News issued a statement saying it was pleased with the FCC's ruling.
"We believe the FCC's action reaffirmed the strength of the First Amendment and the importance of free and robust news coverage in our society," the company said.
At the CIA, spokesman Patti Volz said: "We don't have anything to say right now becuase we haven't seen the decision. Our lawyers will have to study it." She declined to speculate what further action, if any, the CIA might take.
The CIA had complained to the FCC about "ABC World News Tonight" broadcasts last fall that dealt with the collapse of a Hawaiian investment firm, Bishop, Baldwin, Rewald, Dillingham & Wong. On the ABC broadcasts, Ronald Ray Rewald, president of the bankrupt firm, claimed he was acting as a covert CIA agent and said the agency had plotted to murder him.
Rewald has been jailed after being indicted on multiple counts of fraud associated with the loss of $22 million in investors' money.
The CIA formally complained to the FCC about the network's action, becoming the first federal agency to bring such a challenge before another government agency.
The FCC staff disagreed with the CIA's charges, saying that the intelligence agency had failed to provide evidence to support its claims. The CIA then filed an amended complaint reiterating its claims that ABC "acted with reckless disregard for the truth."
The FCC, in its ruling Friday, upheld the staff's earlier conclusions.
The federal regulatory agency reiterated that it would initiate action on news distortion complaints only when it received "direct extrinsic evidence" that a broadcaster "deliberately intended to distort the news."
The FCC said that neither the CIA nor the American Legal Foundation--which had joined in the complaints--provided "any direct evidence that an ABC employee knew that any element of the story was false."
Moreover, the FCC warned that it possesses "neither the expertise nor the desire to look over the shoulder of broadcast journalists and ask why a particular piece of information was reported, or not reported; or, for that matter, why it was placed in a news story in a particular way."
As for the CIA's charges that ABC violated fairness rules, the FCC said that while the news broadcast had made fleeting references to other alleged illegal CIA activities, it did not purport to deal with broader issues involving the CIA's activities or conduct.
The FCC also dismissed the CIA's claims that ABC had violated personal attack rules, saying that the rule did not apply since there was no controversial issue of public importance.
At the same time, however, the commission denied a request by the American Civil Liberties Union, which had asked the FCC to prohibit government agencies from filing such complaints against broadcasters.