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Deal looks dead, but debate isn't

Thursday, January 20, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The deal may be dead, but the debate rages on. And on.

Cornerstone TeleVision's decision to protect its mission and walk away from a long-awaited FCC decision, $17 million, a license switch and a new dial position has touched a national nerve.

Calling Cornerstone's stand "principled," U.S. Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, said yesterday, "I commend Cornerstone for its refusal to yield to the Federal Communications Commission's marching orders. ... Shock jocks and obscene lyrics are broadcast every day in our nation and ironically, the FCC chose to single out programming that expresses faith for increased scrutiny."

But Jerry Starr, co-chairman of Save Pittsburgh Public Television, took the opposite view. "This is not discrimination against religion. It's not unwarranted government intrusion into broadcasters' rights.

"It is simply a defense of education and a demand that the FCC observe its mandate to protect the public interest," said Starr, who now heads the Citizens for Independent Broadcasting, based in Washington, D.C.

"Their position is that because it's government, they shouldn't be telling them what to do. But that's why the FCC exists, to regulate the industry in the public interest."

On Monday, Oxley and at least 32 co-sponsors are expected to introduce the Religious Broadcasting Freedom Act to reverse new FCC guidelines about religious programs and whether they can be considered educational.

The guidelines, which the FCC characterized as a clarification of its existing regulations, state that religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personal religious views do not qualify.

Because the FCC also said more than half of the programming on an educational station must serve an educational purpose, the guidelines could limit the amount of religious programming by broadcasters with an educational license.

There are about 15 such stations, including ones in Denver, Atlanta, Houston and West Milford, N.J., along with other, almost exclusively Southern outlets. Many more religious broadcasters have regular commercial licenses.

The guidelines were part of the Dec. 29 order approving a Pittsburgh TV deal that would have eliminated WQEX and let WPCB move to Channel 16 and take over its noncommercial educational license. Unless this drama takes another twist, that is not going to happen.

But the fallout remains.

"This case has reopened the question of what the eligibility requirements are for educational broadcasting," said Starr. His grassroots organization has been trying to block WPCB from getting WQEX's license, insisting that programs depicting creationism as science and homosexuality as a curable disease do not qualify as educational.

The deal's opponents have argued repeatedly that Cornerstone can do what it wants with a commercial license, but once it gets a noncommercial educational license, it must be held to different - and broader - standards.

But Oxley and the National Religious Broadcasters caution that once the FCC starts judging which programming is acceptable, then all programming could be fair game.

"If it's noncommercial television licensees restricted today, will it be commercial licensees or radio stations tomorrow?" Oxley asked. "If it's religious expression suppressed today, will it be political speech next?"

Last week, however, FCC Chairman William Kennard said religious broadcasters operating on commercial stations and are not subject to the new guidelines.

He also noted that stations affected by the guidelines can still carry religious programming as long as it does not constitute more than 50 percent of the station's total programming.

The religious broadcasters are not appeased. Spokesman Karl Stoll said, "We think Cornerstone's decision to withdraw only strengthens our case, that what the FCC has done here is too severe and too restrictive."

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