HOLMES REPORT: NRA plan for news organization a step toward keeping free speech free come election time

The National Rifle Association's decision to get into the media business is a clever response to a wrong-headed piece of legislation.

The National Rifle Association's decision to get into the media business is a clever response to a wrong-headed piece of legislation.

The NRA has hired a reporter, launched a news website, and also might buy a radio station, all of which should be enough to qualify it as a news organization and, thus, enable it to circumvent new campaign-finance rules designed to prevent advocacy organizations from running ads at election time. The new rules, regardless of what the US Supreme Court might think, are a frontal assault on the First Amendment. The rules are inconsistent in many ways. For one, they allow people with lots of money to spend it on their own campaigns, but prevent donations to others. So Ross Perot can spend as much as he likes on his own doomed candidacy, but he can't give the same amount to someone electable: Colin Powell, for example. An even more puzzling inconsistency: Advocacy groups can express their views freely at any time, except during the run up to an election. A casual observer might assume that free speech is more important at election time, but Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the opposite is true. The worst inconsistency of all, however, is the item that makes news organizations exempt from the rules. Indeed, the overwhelming support for campaign-finance reform among major media can be easily explained by the fact that it gives them a monopoly on opinion during the critical pre-election period. The NRA can't buy an ad in The New York Times to endorse a candidate, but the Times can endorse as many candidates as it likes through its editorial pages. This makes even less sense when you consider media ownership. It means Oracle and Sun are precluded from endorsing candidates, but rival Microsoft - which owns the online news operation Slate and has a stake in MSNBC - can offer support to candidates that support its policy agenda. Fortunately, the evolution of the internet has rendered the distinction between a news organization and any other organization increasingly meaningless. Journalists in this country are not licensed; they do not enjoy any special privileges denied to the rest of us. Similarly, there's no legal definition of a news organization that would preclude an advocacy group from becoming one: Fox News already has shown that there's no requirement for even the pretense of objectivity. So for an investment of about $1 million, the NRA now owns a media company with the same rights as ABC, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. Let's hope other advocacy groups across the political spectrum follow suit. The more voices we hear, the freer we are.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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