NBC fights potential subpoenas

Aug 13, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In a behind-the-scenes pre-emptive strike, NBC lobbyists are trying to win commitments from the chairs of key congressional committees to refuse to subpoena NBC for videotape that allegedly shows GE chief Jack Welch attempting to influence the network’s presidential election-night coverage last fall, sources said.
In a letter to NBC earlier this month, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., threatened to seek a congressional subpoena compelling the network to release the tapes, which were apparently for advertising and promotion purposes, if they weren’t turned over voluntarily by Sept. 4.
During a congressional hearing in February, NBC News President Andrew Lack said the tapes, if they existed, would be released to the lawmaker.
But in a subsequent exchange of letters (see this story on EMonline.com) with Rep. Waxman, Mr. Lack reneged, contending that Mr. Welch played no role in NBC News’ election night decision making.
“To suggest that he somehow took control of the program and was responsible for giving the order to call the election for
George W. Bush is absurd,” said Mr. Lack in one of the letters to Rep. Waxman.
“I was there and in charge,” Mr. Lack continued. “It just didn’t happen. So there can be no videotape showing that it did.”
Under normal circumstances, such a subpoena would be issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the congressional panel with oversight of the nation’s broadcast issues.
But that committee’s chairman-Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.-has already made clear that he is not interested in issuing a subpoena, at least not for the time being.
Now NBC lobbyists are said to be attempting to prevent Rep. Waxman from getting a subpoena from other congressional committees.
“Of course we’re touching our political bases after such an inflammatory letter,” said Kassie Canter, NBC spokeswoman,adding that the network had no intention of voluntarily providing the lawmaker with any tape.
But Phil Schiliro, Rep. Waxman’s press secretary, said the lawmaker will pursue the issue.
Mr. Schiliro also said nothing would prevent Rep. Waxman from seeking a subpoena in the Senate, where the committees are chaired by Democrats, if he can’t get one in the House, where the committees are controlled by the GOP.
“Instead of spending their time lobbying, it would make more sense to honor Andy Lack’s promise to release the video,” Mr. Schiliro said.
At least some observers said that even assuming Mr. Welch had bullied the newsroom on election night, veteran NBC News journalists would have simply ignored his directives.
Said Mr. Schiliro, “Given GE’s interest in specific legislative issues, at a minimum it creates the appearance of inappropriate interference by having the company’s chairman spend time at the decision desk. Since it’s clear that happened, and there are serious questions about comments he may have made, it seems obvious NBC should release an advertising video that would definitively settle the matter, especially since Andy Lack promised under oath to release the video if it existed.”
In his letters to Mr. Lack, Rep. Waxman said the allegations were that Mr. Welch cheered when things appeared to favor Bush and hissed when they appeared to favor Democratic candidate Al Gore.
“The most serious allegation, as far as I’m concerned, is that he was responsible for giving the order to call the election for George W. Bush,” Rep. Waxman said.