The propriety of KABC-TV's decision to permit political commentator Bill Press to bid farewell to his television audience the day after he announced that he was running for the 1988 Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate has been questioned by the director of a political watchdog organization that lobbies for campaign reform and ethics in government.
"It's a question of fairness, even though it probably is not a violation of the law," said Walter Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause. "They should not be giving a candidate that kind of unique access to the public free of charge."
Terry Crofoot, KABC-TV news director, contended in an interview that Press was simply offering his final, regularly scheduled commentary on the 5 p.m. news when he appeared last Wednesday. Press made an impassioned presentation about standing up and fighting for what he believes in but did not proclaim outright that he was an official candidate. He had announced the day before that he would be quitting his Channel 7 job to campaign full-time.
Crofoot said that since Press has not formally filed papers declaring his candidacy--he said that Press does not plan to do so until January--KABC-TV is under no legal obligation to provide equal time to Press' only declared opponent for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy.
"We are within our rights," Crofoot said. "We do not intend to give McCarthy the same time, and the FCC has concurred with that position in several other cases."
The McCarthy campaign has no plans to press this issue in court or with KABC-TV management, according to Darry Sragow, McCarthy's campaign director.
"I can't say we won't ever ask for equal time," Sragow said. "But at the moment we are not contemplating it. A single 2- or 3-minute appearance on KABC-TV may not be worth a protracted dispute with the station."
Still, for Zelman, the question of when a candidate becomes an official candidate remains unresolved. He argues that if an individual publicly solicits money and support and begins hiring a staff--as he said Press has done for the last few months--then that person is clearly a candidate.
Zelman, who sent a letter to the station in September asking that it take Press off the air, said that Channel 7 had been misleading its viewers by passing off as an independent commentator a person with thinly veiled political aspirations. Press maintained that until last week he had only been exploring the possibility of running.
"KABC-TV is hanging an argument of principle on a thin legal thread," Zelman said. "In my opinion the rope of principle has been cut. For a television news station, being legal is not enough."
Crofoot, who faced a similar situation when commentator Bruce Herschensohn left the station to run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1986, said he did not believe that KABC-TV compromised its credibility or its ethics by allowing Press his last, self-promotional commentary.
"I don't feel shaky about it at all," Crofoot said. "The only people who are asking about it are political reporters who are trying to put a new lead on a story."