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NRA Says It May Be Provoked to Buy Media Outlet

December 09, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

The National Rifle Assn. is hoping that the Supreme Court this week will throw out a portion of the new campaign finance law that it doesn't like. But if the ruling doesn't go its way, the nation's biggest gun-ownership lobby says it may try to get into the TV or radio news business so that it can get its commercial messages heard during the upcoming elections.

The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law banned interest groups that receive corporate money from running TV or radio ads that name specific candidates within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election, and imposed limits on how much corporate money can be spent.

News organizations are exempt from the law, however. The Supreme Court is considering whether the law's attempt to limit the influence of big money in politics is an abridgement of freedom of speech protections.

NRA President Wayne LaPierre said Monday that if the law stands, his group would consider buying a TV or radio outlet, declaring itself a news organization and applying for the news exemption.

"If the so-called bill says I can't make commercials, then I'll make newscasts," LaPierre said.

"The idea of where people get their news has changed," he said. "Who's to say [CNN-owner] Time Warner is any more credible [than the NRA] delivering news about firearms and hunting?"

The 4-million member organization already publishes a number of magazines and Web sites.

Spokesmen for the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission declined to comment on the NRA's plan.

LaPierre said the NRA has no specifics in mind for how it would implement its plan to mount a national TV or radio news operation quickly, or what it would air. He added that the NRA's plans depend in part on what the Supreme Court decides. A ruling could come this week.

"If they do overturn it, and we still have access to commercial time, we might still look at [the TV and radio proposal]," LaPierre said, "but the situation would be alleviated to some extent."

Since public airwaves are controlled by the FCC, federal regulators would need to approve any transfer of a television or radio license to the NRA. Under FCC rules, broadcasters are required to serve the public interest and the needs of their communities.

John G. Johnson Jr., a media attorney at Paul Hastings in Washington, said the NRA's license would face an uphill battle at the FCC. He noted that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who co-authored the campaign finance law, serves as chairman of the Senate committee that oversees the FCC. "It would be a very political environment," he said.

He doubted whether an NRA application would be approved before the election next year. He also questioned whether the media exemption would provide as much relief from campaign finance limits as the NRA appears to hope.

"If you own an AM radio station in Provo, Utah, is that really going to allow you to put out information in New York?"

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.

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