By Paul Siegel
Political pundits have recently been focusing on those possible Republican presidential contenders who would be giving up highly lucrative media and public relations careers were they to join the 2012 presidential race. First, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were let go from their Fox News gigs, followed by Glenn Beck, then Mike Huckabee used his Fox program to take himself out of the race. Donald Trump – the day after NBC announced it would renew The Apprentice, also bowed out of 2012 contention. Attention has switched to Sarah Palin--- would she give up her Fox role, Sarah Palin’s Alaska on TLC (as well as her lucrative lecture business, which would be at least unseemly for a presidential candidate)?
Most news stories about who’s in and who’s out have suggested that these media celebrities are weighing dollar signs and considering the limited number of waking hours in a day as they decide whether to run. Missing from most accounts is the fact that one of the few remaining federal laws regulating political content on the airwaves plays a major role.
Section 315 of the Federal Communication Act, referred to more colloquially as the Equal Time Rule, tells broadcast stations (legal scholars are divided as to how strictly the Federal Communications Commission would apply the rule to cable stations) that if they allow one candidate for office to “use” their airwaves, they must invite all candidates for the same office to enjoy equal time in a similarly prominent spot at a future date, prior to the election. When Ronald Reagan was a candidate (both for governor and president), Bedtime for Bonzo had to be put to bed for the duration of the campaign. If Fred Thompson decided to run again for senator or for some other office, reruns of his Law & Order and many movie appearances would disappear from broadcast and likely from most cable stations too.
The rule applies not only to federal elections, but local ones as well. When The Tonight Show failed to realize that they had conducted an interview with the Mayor of Burbank when he was a candidate for re-election, the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles had to give free airtime to the other 11 candidates for that much-sought-after office. Similarly, when William Branch decided to run for a town council seat in Loomis, California (population 4,000 at the time), he had to give up his on-air duties as reporter for a local Sacramento station.
Thus it is that Fox News’ not having pushed Sarah Palin out the door (at least as of this writing) has suggested to some pundits that network management may know something we don’t know—that Ms. Palin may, like Mr. Trump before her, be teasing us with the possibility of a presidential run only to drum up publicity for her various media interests, that the Equal Time Rule will be invoked against her or her Alaska.
Paul Siegel is professor of communication at the University of Hartford. He was the founding executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Kansas and Western Missouri office, and he has served on the ACLU's affiliate boards in Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Connecticut. He is the author of Communication Law in America: Third Edition. Go to www.paulsiegelcommlaw.com for more information.