In a sharply worded letter to the president of CBS, Inc., the chairman of a House subcommittee strongly hinted yesterday that he might seek to subpoena information that the network contends is protected by the First Amendment.
In a letter to CBS President Thomas H. Wyman, Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications, consumer protection and finance, stated that CBS's refusal to provide the requested information "suggests a remarkable and surprising disregard by CBS of the role of its stations as public trustees . . . ," and that the House committee "has a record which clearly demonstrates how seriously we take our responsibility to obtain the information we deem necessary to carry out our functions."
The controversy centers on the subcommittee's efforts to develop a "public interest quantification standard" as part of an overall effort to draft legislation to deregulate the broadcast industry.
The National Association of Broadcasters, the powerful industry trade group, has long been pushing for deregulation, but in the past had rejected the quantification approach to public service. However, NAB President Eddie Fritts has said that broadcasters would cooperate with the subcommittee's legislative efforts.
In exchange for easier license renewal procedures and lightened regulatory burdens, local television and radio stations would have to provide at least a minimum of public-service programming.
Consequently, the subcommittee mailed out a series of questionnaires to radio and television stations around the country in July as part of an effort to measure the current levels of public-interest programming. Shortly thereafter, the NAB sent a Mailgram to its members telling them that their participation in the survey was "purely voluntary. Whether and how you reply is strictly up to you."
Wirth and several members of the subcommittee publicly expressed their annoyance at the Mailgram and said privately that they felt the NAB was reneging on its pledge of cooperation.
According to a congressional staffer, the subcommittee has received a 30 percent return rate for its television questionnaires and less than 23 percent from radio stations. In a letter to NAB's Fritts, Wirth described those statistics as "pathetic."
However, unlike other stations that simply did not respond, Roger Coloff, CBS vice president of policy and planning, replied to Wirth in an Aug. 15 letter, saying that the network would refuse to comply with the request for data because "such governmental attempts to assure what it considers to be 'good' programming are contrary to the sound public policy embodied in the First Amendment."
It was this response that prompted Monday's letter to CBS President Wyman.
A Wirth aide pointed out that the information the subcommitee is seeking is already public information sent to the Federal Communications Commission and that there should be no problem in making it available to Congress. "This is publicly available data on public logs," the aide said. "We just don't have the staff to gather it all ourselves."
CBS spokesmen were unavailable for comment.
Asked about the First Amendment implications of the request, attorney Floyd Abrams said "any time a congressional committee seeks to require a broadcaster to quantify its programs by type or nature, there are serious First Amendment questions raised."
Should a subpoena be issued and CBS contest it, "a very interesting case" might ensue, Abrams said.