Executives at three Los Angeles television stations criticized KABC-TV Channel 7 for allowing Bruce Herschensohn to remain as a commentator on its news broadcasts after announcing that he has formed a committee to raise money for him to run for the U.S. Senate next year.
They maintain that Herschensohn's continued presence on the air gives him an unfair electoral advantage and damages the credibility of the newscast.
"I wouldn't let him stay on the air," KTLA Channel 5 news director Warren Cereghino said. "I think it's absurd. Even though commentary is by its very definition not supposed to be objective, it just gives him an unfair advantage in his political campaign. I think he should take a leave of absence. He could come back after the election if he loses."
"My personal opinion is that when a person has declared, even though he hasn't officially filed the papers, it's probably a good time to part company with the station," KCOP Channel 13 news director Jeff Wald said.
"We'd pull him off the air," KCBS Channel 2 General Manager Robert Hyland said when asked what he would do if placed in a similar situation. "Technically, he really isn't a candidate right now, but if it's well known that he's raising funds and has a committee working on his behalf, then obviously that's an unfair advantage to anybody else who might run."
KABC General Manager Terry Crofoot defended his position Tuesday, calling the criticism "a tempest in a teapot" and noting that the Capital Cities/ABC-owned station has dealt with the issue exactly the same way when it came up three times in the past with Herschensohn and former commentator Bill Press.
"Mr. Herschensohn is a political commentator and all of his comments are labeled as political commentary," Crofoot said. ". . . It's the company's legal position, supported by the FCC rules, that until (a commentator) is a formal candidate, he or she may remain on the air."
Herschensohn said that he told KABC-TV news director Roger Bell of his political plans before making them public last month.
"We've been through all this before and Channel 7 has been through this before," Herschensohn said. "He knows the legalities and ethics of all this because it's nothing new to Channel 7. He didn't find any problems with that."
Herschensohn said that he is retaining his jobs at KABC-TV and KABC-AM (790), for which he delivers commentaries on the "Ken and Barkley Company" morning show, for financial reasons.
"If I was to get off television now, there is the probability of a year and a half without a job," he said. "This is my means of income."
Channel 7 is not under any legal obligations regarding Herschensohn because he has not officially filed documents declaring his candidacy. Only when he does would KABC have to comply with the federal laws that mandate political candidates be given equal air time outside of news coverage--which is why KABC would ask Herschensohn to resign at that point.
U.S. Senate candidates are required to file a declaration of candidacy and nomination documents with the registrar of voters in their home county between Feb. 10 and March 6, 1992. Herschensohn said that he has not decided when he will leave Channel 7.
"I'm not going to wait until the legal requirement in March," he said. "As time goes on, the campaign takes up more and more time and when I find I can't do both jobs and do them responsibly, I'll have to resign as a commentator. I don't know when that date will come, but I certainly will feel it when it happens."
Herschensohn said he originally planned to form his campaign committee in September, but opted for the earlier start after Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Palo Alto) formed a committee in March. Campbell and Herschensohn are seeking the Republican nomination for the Senate seat currently held by retiring Democrat Alan Cranston.
While admitting his weeknight commentaries could be an asset to his political ambitions, Herschensohn noted that they could also hurt.
"There's a liability in expressing your opinion about every national and international policy under the sun, which I've done for 13 years, (because) you've built up a record," Herschensohn said. "It's certainly easier to attack, where there's a litany of opinions on practically every national and international issue."
Herschensohn has also come under fire from a commentator at another station, KCBS' Michael Tuck.
"The temptation for him is to say all the right things, to stroke those high-rollers with the most money so they will stuff his campaign chest," Tuck said in a commentary broadcast last week. "The temptation is to sell out--one job for the other. I think Herschensohn ought to choose, one job or the other--politics or commentary."
"If he believes the temptation is to sell out, he can only speak of what's going on in his own mind, not in mine," Herschensohn said.