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When Barnes needs a little help 

He gets WSB-TV to do his dirty work

It wasn't just the candidates who were besmirching good government and honest politics in this week's electoral jousting. The Award for Deepest Sewer Diving in the 2002 Elections goes to WSB-TV. Here's the story, only part of which can be found in WSB's Coxopoly sister, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On Oct. 27, WSB hosted a debate featuring Gov. Roy Barnes and his GOP opponent, Sonny Perdue. So far, that's a good and noble thing for the station to do. Of course, a rake would chuckle and observe that considering the millions and millions of dollars sucked up by Cox in political advertising -- and the fact that the station and the AJC provide anemic political coverage that's seldom more than an inch deep -- sparing a little air time for the public benefit is hardly a sacrifice.

It goes without saying that the Cox conglomerate adores Barnes. The governor has catered to the corporate agenda in the state -- dumping the old, racist-tinged flag, for example. Barnes has been rewarded with his staggering $20 million war chest, most of it from the well-heeled and from corporate coffers -- including $5,000 donations from the two Cox supreme beings, Jim Kennedy and Anne Cox Chambers.

There's nothing wrong with that -- aside from the smell wafting from the orgy of money that defines American politics at all levels.

But Barnes really blew it on the WSB-hosted debate. When challenged about the decidedly medieval conditions afflicting children in state care, Barnes displayed out-of-character callousness by responding: "Children die every day."

You can almost hear the Barnes campaign staff utter a collective "OOPS!" at this "let them eat cake" dismissal of children who, after all, are probably poor and unlikely to make campaign contributions. After a damage control huddle, Barnes announced that he was really, really opposed to the state mass murdering children.

Noteworthy: The AJC the next day ran a fluffy little story on the debate that did not include any mention of Barnes' political flatulence regarding dead kids, probably the most newsworthy moment of the evening's parry and thrust.

Let's never accuse the Republicans of having good taste. The Perdue campaign immediately jumped on the gaffe and produced a TV spot that featured an 8-second clip from the debate.

This is where the plot thickens. When Perdue's people sent the spot to WSB, the station rejected it, claiming "copyright infringement." If WSB's lawyers and management actually believe this absurdity, they should be fired posthaste. A few of the reasons:

  • Public statements by two of the least private individuals in the state can hardly be copyright protected.

  • There is a concept called "fair use," in which excerpts from copyrighted material can be employed in such things as news reports, reviews and commentaries. "Fair use" also applies to politics, and candidates regularly excerpt from endorsements and media film footage for campaign material. WSB, the AJC -- almost all news organizations -- exercise the "fair use" copyright exemption. This is not alien territory to the media.

  • Legalities aside, it would be impossible to conceive of a greater affront to democracy than a news organization trying to claim it "owned" the statements of a politician -- especially if that "ownership" was employed to stifle criticism of the candidate.

  • As WSB well knows, it does not and never did have a unilateral copyright on the debate. The two candidates themselves can claim a copyright on their own words.

    In a letter to the Perdue campaign, obtained by CL, WSB General Manager Greg Stone also groused that the station "strongly objects to the use of its programming footage in all political advertising." Oh, rubbish. Where has the station ever made such an assertion before? (Answer: It hasn't.)

    The station laid it on even thicker, contending WSB didn't like Perdue's sound-bite treatment of Barnes' remarks. I know, I know, it's really a gut-buster of a joke by WSB. If it has such distaste for sound bites, I suggest Cox immediately add up the gazillions of dollars in clipped-comment political advertising it has broadcast in the last few weeks and donate that money to worthy causes (perhaps foundations that study the evils of media consolidation).

    If all of this does not have you slapping your forehead in amazement, it actually gets worse. The Cox Gestapo demanded that Perdue hand over a list of all other TV stations that had been furnished copies of the commercial. And WSB -- don't forget, we're talking about the biggest bully on the block mediawise -- threatened these other stations with breaking the law if they ran the spots.

    If Perdue were to be successful in getting his spot on other stations, WSB's Stone sternly warned, "You will have caused them to violate ... the federal Communications Act."

    Unfortunately for WSB, that's so much baloney, and the station knew it at the time, I'm sure. The communications act is unambiguous when it commands: A station "shall have no power of censorship over the material" from a political candidate. Let's repeat for the Cox folks: no power of censorship. Even for Cox (sorry, guys).

    Ominously, Stone hinted other stations would have "substantial liability" if they didn't do Cox's bidding. Talk about being ham-fisted.

    Well, what's a candidate to do? On Halloween, Perdue unleashed his legal goblins and filed a lawsuit in federal court. His field marshals, led by state GOP boss Ralph Reed, called a press conference on the steps of the Capitol. This as it turned out was pretty rich theater.

    First, WSB's Bill Nigut, normally a worthy pundit, couldn't decide if he was there as a reporter or as a defender of his station's shilling for Barnes. With a perplexed expression and stumbling words, he asked Perdue's mouthpieces: "How important is this ad?"

    Perdue lawyer Bruce Bowers in turn was perplexed at Nigut's query. With explaining-to-a-child tones, Bowers responded: "A blockbuster."

    The denouement came a few hours later. Stone told me that "based on guidelines from the [Federal Communications Commission], we will run the ad."

    Here's the mystery. WSB, Stone and anyone else with a brain at Cox knew the attempted censorship was illegal and the copyright claim was bogus. Perdue was going to run the ad sooner or later. So why engage in a fit of self-embarrassment?

    The answer is in the phrase "sooner or later." My spin on what happened -- based on my own shrewd deduction and some comments from friends at WSB and the AJC -- was that the little comedy was even more sinister than it appears.

    While Cox knew it couldn't succeed in protecting Barnes from his own words, it could delay Perdue running his spot. That gave Barnes time to produce his own rebuttal advertisement that says Perdue will "do or say anything to get elected." Barnes had his spot at the state's TV stations by the time WSB feigned noble defeat and let Perdue's commercial get on the air.

    I'm sure Barnes will reward Cox for this little bit of exceptional, unorthodox and highly unethical aid. The cash register at WSB is still ringing from all of the governor's advertising.

    As I write this, I don't know if the GOP will succeed in breaking the Democrat's monopoly on the governor's office and the Georgia Assembly. That war cry has been the damn-near-every-column message from the AJC's ultra-right columnist Jim Wooten.

    Several months ago, I was having lunch at a downtown eatery, Sylvia's, when Wooten and Saxby Chambliss sat at a table next to me. I thought about offering a "hello," but I got caught up in the Wooten-Chambliss dialogue. Hey, these are public people in a public space. No apologies for eavesdropping.

    The repartee wasn't a reporter or editorialist interviewing a candidate. Rather, it was a campaign strategy meeting.

    I was reminded of this last week at a pair of press conferences called by the GOP on the Capitol steps. State Republican Chairman Ralph Reed was the star, flanked by the party's lawyers and flacks. When Wooten arrived, it was a love fest. The Republican honchos couldn't stroke the columnist enough.

    All of that wouldn't be so bad if there was a hint of intellectual honesty to Wooten's claim that the Democrats unfairly maintain their grip on state politics. The Dems do what political animals do. Republicans would do just the same if they had a chance.

    What's wrong with Wooten's argument is that the GOP is its own worst enemy. For the most part, the Republicans refuse to field candidates who have the slightest whiff of credibility.

    Sonny Perdue was one exception. Steve Stancil possibly another. Even with those guys, we're not talking "outstanding," merely "OK."

    But Chambliss? An extremist who when he thinks the press isn't around doesn't mind cracking a racist joke. An intellectual dwarf. Any Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia starts with about 40 percent of the vote. Whatever else Chambliss got was due to the use of extortion, fears and deceit by the Bush administration to get Republicans elected.

    And the rest of the statewide offices? Give us (meaning Georgians) a break. The GOP roster for the statewide posts wouldn't even have been a good slate for a neighborhood association board.

    I agree that we need to break the Democrats' lock on the state. But the GOP isn't the vehicle to do that.

    Disclaimer: The Coxopoly includes a 25 percent stake in CL's parent company. Senior-Editor-slash-congressional-candidate John Sugg is still refusing to concede Tuesday's election to the ultra-right Republican dentist in the race. Sugg can be reached at john.sugg@suggforcongress.com or at 404-614-1241.

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