The Federal Election Commission is tripping over its own procedures and, unless it finds a way out, it coult create absurdly distorted political news coverage.
The commission finds itself entangled with Reader's Digest, one of the nation's most widely circulated magazines, and Pink Sheet on the Left, a conservative, anticommunist biweekly publication with a circulation of about 14,000.
Both are in the middle stages of a process that begins automatically when the commission receives a complaint alleging election law violations.
Reader's Digest published an article on Sen. Kennedy and Chappaquiddick early last year. In preparing for the article, the magazine's editors had an engineer and an oceanographer conduct studies. On Jan. 14, copies of the issues and videotapes from one of the studies were sent out to televisions networks and other media. Both the story and the tapes received national attention.
Seven months later, an Oregon resident complained to the commission that Reader's Digest had violated election laws by making improper corporate political expenditures that had a negative effect on the senator's campaign.
Phillips Publishing Inc., long in business, produces Pink Street on the Left. The company sent out a four-page letter to potential and regular subscribers solicting subscriptions and funds to place the newsletter in college libraries. The letter emphasized the Pink Sheet's opposition to Sen. Kennedy. In March, the Kennedy for President Committee complained to the commission that Phillips Publishing is a political organizations opposing a candidate and should, therefore, have registered with the commission.
Legal counsel for both the Reader's Digest and the Pink Sheet denied the allegations and attempted to stop the commission's investigations.
But the commission's machinery, once started in motion, and unless stopped in court, has to run its course like some giant windup leviathan. The key that begins the process is a complaint that anyone can submit. Once received, a copy of the complaint goes to in these instances, Reader's Digest and Pink Sheet. Thus beings a series of legal queries and responses until, in the last step, the commission may find, or fail to find, probable cause. Then there's conciliation or enforcement, depending on additional legal negotiation.
However, the act the established the commission specifically excludes from unacceptable political expenditures "any news story, commentary or editorial disributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned controlled by any political party, politcal committee or candidate."
In other words, the commission need never begin investigative procedures involving favorable or unfavorable political news articles, or the normal promotion of such articles, in established media. The costly, labyrinthine process simply does not have to start if the commission would use the authority of its own act when it first receives a complaint. It would be tougher to dismiss a complaint, to be sure, but the commissioners are not appointed to avoid judgment.
If the commission insists on following the pattern it has established, every news organization in the country taking a position on any national candidate could find itself having to prove in exhausting, unnecessary and ridiculous detail that it is not a political entity and has not illegally used corporate funds in performing its clear First Amendment prerogatives.