The Radio Equalizer: Brian Maloney

07 July 2005

WA Talk Radio Ruling Gaining Attention

Awareness Builds

Backdoor Attempt To Reinstate Fairness Doctrine Gets Ink

When it comes to beating the holiday weekend news blues, maybe there is a weapon for getting the word out: persistence.

Nothing's worse than seeing a major news development, especially one having such a huge potential impact on conservative activism, getting buried by holiday distractions.

Especially ironic: a judicial assault on free speech, just before Independence Day.

Since a Thurston County, Washington, judge ruled late last Friday that comments by Seattle talk hosts are considered in-kind campaign contributions, subject to reporting under state disclosure laws, it's been an uphill battle getting conservatives to understand its ramifications.

The Radio Equalizer's previous reporting on the subject is found here.

But radio industry insiders, from on-air personalities to corporate suits, seemed to immediately grasp its impact.

In Thursday's edition, Bill Virgin of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer explores the decision's fallout. Here's an excerpt, but be sure to read the entire story, it's just stunning:

Talk-radio hosts regularly discuss candidates and ballot issues, often with a particular point of view in favor of one or opposed to another.

Do those comments constitute a financial contribution to a campaign?

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham thinks they do. In a ruling issued Friday, Wickham said the comments and activities by KVI-AM (570) hosts Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson on behalf of the Initiative 912 campaign are in-kind contributions that must be reported to the Public Disclosure Commission.

The ruling was sought by the San Juan County prosecutor and city attorneys for Seattle, Auburn and Kent as part of a larger case involving contributions to the Initiative 912 campaign.

Their argument is that the KVI hosts went beyond merely talking about the issue.
In a release posted on the anti-initiative Web site Keep Washington Rolling, the plaintiffs accuse initiative backers of "failure to disclose the significant in-kind contributions received from Fisher Broadcasting, owners of radio station KVI.

"Radio hosts Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson have spent countless hours working on campaign strategy and promotion while on the Fisher payroll, and the KVI Web site urges listeners to help the two get the measure on the ballot. None of these resources provided by the Seattle-based broadcasting corporation have been reported as required per state disclosure laws."

Wrote Wickham, "In the area of speech, requiring disclosure of in-kind contributions for media time allocated to campaigning for a political campaign will not restrict that campaigning, but merely require it to be disclosed to the general public, much the same as any other valuable contribution."

As part of his ruling he ordered No New Gas Tax to disclose "all in-kind media contributions."

The ruling has attracted attention beyond Washington's borders. "It is absolutely stunning in terms of the philosophical and theoretical questions it raises," says Michael Harrison, publisher of the talk-radio trade magazine Talkers; Harrison adds that he's not aware of a similar case elsewhere in the country.
In Harrison's view, if no money changed hands then there's no contribution.

"Otherwise you can subject it to taxes, limits on contributions, all kinds of things that get in the way of free speech. To put a value on it is a very dangerous precedent." (In response to the ruling and to meet a deadline, the initiative campaign estimated the value of the hosts' work at $20,000).

Brian Maloney, a former Seattle-area talk-show host who now runs a national blog on talk-radio issues, raises this question: If talk-radio comments count as political contributions, why not newspaper editorials? Or Web sites?

Or should I add, the guy in the park with a megaphone? The campaign volunteers doorbelling or leafletting?

In the story, a KVI/KOMO manager notes that a KOMO-TV commentator took the other side of the gas tax repeal issue, in editorial commentaries. Why aren't his statements considered a contribution to that campaign?

Judge Wickham chose to stick it only to conservatives.

Note that several city attorneys, including Seattle's, pushed for the talk radio element of the ruling. Isn't it obvious, that it's really about liberal councils trying to shut down their radio critics?

Could a case be now made for removing Rush Limbaugh from the Evergreen Province's airwaves?

One could easily argue that comments made by Limbaugh or other national hosts could also be considered contributions to say, Jim McDermott's opponents, or Maria Cantwell's, when he criticizes them on-air.

Limbaugh has often talked about attempts by Hillary Clinton and other Democrats to reinstate the FCC's former Fairness Doctrine, which regulated radio broadcasts and was repealed in 1987, paving the way for modern talk radio.

Isn't this a clever judicial method of doing what Congress so far hasn't?

Wickham's wrong when he says placing disclosure requirements on political speech won't stifle it. It will, especially when the opposing side uses it to demand free advertising of an "equal" amount.

Stations will quickly pull the plug on talk radio if forced to provide potentially large amounts of airtime gratis.

Also, he asserts that Wilbur and Carlson worked on the campaign while on Fisher's payroll. Does he mean they did this on company time? Otherwise, wouldn't any campaign volunteer's employer be subject to the same charge?

Within the FCC's election season window, stations would be forced to comply, or risk losing their licenses. These disclosure forms would give opponents valuable evidence to use in making a case to the FCC that they'd been denied equal access to airtime.

It's up to I-912's backers to appeal every aspect of this ruling. If they don't prevail, talk radio will be badly damaged in Washington state, for years to come.

Let's hope this doesn't spread to other states anytime soon.


  • Brian, how did you respond to Dave Ross being forced to go off of his radio show while running for office?

    The level of involvment carlson & wilbur are giving to I-912 is reasonably equivalent to what Ross had during his election campaign.

    I bet you were thrilled when he caught trouble for it tho.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 07 July, 2005 11:56  

  • Windie, it's a good question.

    Ross was a declared candidate for office and remained on-air for sometime afterward. It was not appropriate. Legally, it was murky. His opponents could have pressed the matter more, but pulled back.

    Wilbur and Carlson merely support a proposed ballot measure. Other talk hosts oppose it. They aren't running for anything.

    By Blogger Brian Maloney, at 07 July, 2005 12:58  

  • I think there's a difference there. Dave Ross was actually running for political office himself. Wilber and Carlson are not on the board of the I-912 campaign, just vocal supporters.

    I didn't live in Washington at the time, but didn't Carlson himself run for gov in 2000? And did he stay on the air then?

    Funny thing is, if the judge had ruled that the Seattle P-I had to report a donation for any cause that it editorialized against, hells fury would fall on that judge. But because it's talk radio, they don't care.

    BTW, if this is allowed to stand, who gets to monitor Air America and Dave Ross and demand reporting any time they open their mouths on a political issue?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 07 July, 2005 13:00  

  • I think you're both underestimating the amount of work those two are actually doing for the initiative.

    Supporting it is one thing.

    planning it is something else altogether. Whether or not they're on the board, they're the driving motivational and organizational forces of the initiative.

    And thats why its improper.

    PS: I think carlson was just like Ross. He didn't withdraw from his show at first, but was shamed into it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 07 July, 2005 17:27  

  • Carlson is not really "planning" events. He's doing what's known in legal circles as a "call for action".

    That's where the legal line is drawn, and Judge Wickham needs to be strung up by his feet and used as a pinata for saying otherwise.

    By Blogger Sailor Republica, at 08 July, 2005 01:02  


    That comment covers it pretty well, I think. I'd love to hear a refutation!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 08 July, 2005 17:35  

  • John Carlson resigned his position at KVI the day he filed to run for office, Unlike Dave Ross who was on the air until be "shamed" into a "leave of abscence" complete with campaign signs that looked exactly like KIRO's logo. The comment also that either Wilbur or Carlson were active in the organization of the initiative process is without fact or merit. As a broadcaster, any media outlet, print, TV-Radio, or for that matter, a blog, should be appauled at this ridiculous decision by a judge who clearly is begging to have SCOTUS find it to be a clear violation of the First amendment.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 09 July, 2005 13:57  

  • I am a hard core free speecher. Ross should be allowed to stay on the air if his employer chooses. There should be no limits on advertising either.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 09 July, 2005 14:30  

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