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Waxman pressured to drop tape quest

Sep 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A coalition of media groups-all with some ties to NBC-last week urged Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to drop his effort to get Peacock Network videotape that allegedly shows former GE chief Jack Welch attempting to influence NBC News’ presidential election-night coverage last fall.
But how much influence their missive will have on the standoff is at best unclear because the groups-the Media Institute, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Society of Professional Journalists-are all sponsored to some degree by NBC.
The letter comes as the lawmaker and the network have been tussling publicly over what actually happened in NBC’s newsroom on election night.
NBC News is denying that Mr. Welch influenced the network’s decision to call the election for George W. Bush.
But at the same time, the network has refused to release videotape that allegedly documents Mr. Welch’s election-night behavior, even though the congressman has threatened to seek a subpoena.
The congressman originally set a Sept. 4 deadline for the network to deliver the tape. But last week he agreed to a request by the network to discuss the issue further.
In their letter to the lawmaker last week, the media groups said they believe compelling the network to release the tape would run afoul of the First Amendment.
“Any attempt to seek a subpoena, or to seek the production of NBC videotapes through other means, will set a dangerous precedent with enormous First Amendment implications,” the groups said. “We urge you to drop this matter and take no further action.”
The groups’ letter doesn’t mention NBC’s sponsorship of their activities.
But Patrick Maines, Media Institute president, said he believes NBC’s financial contributions to his group (which he said amounted to $8,000 last year) are irrelevant, in part because writing the letter was his idea, not NBC’s.
“It was totally independent,” Mr. Maines said.
Mr. Maines also said he solicited the support of James Gray and Lucy Dalglish, the executive directors of SPJ and the Reporters Committee, respectively, who serve on Media Institute’s First Amendment board.
“It’s the issue that caught my eye,” said Ms. Dalglish, confirming that the network had made a “modest” contribution to her own group. “It didn’t have anything to do with NBC.”
Added Mr. Gray: “The fact that MSNBC is a co-sponsor of our forthcoming convention had nothing to do with our signing our organization’s name to that letter. We believe that there is a significant First Amendment issue, that Congress or any governmental authority subpoenaing tapes and transcripts and other information of this sort is inappropriate. The allegation that Mr. Welch had any influence over NBC’s call on the election we think is ridiculous.”
Rep. Waxman’s spokesman had no comment on the letter but confirmed that representatives of the network and the lawmaker had been discussing the issue.
“We’ve had conversations and expect to know if a resolution is possible soon,” said Phil Schiliro, Rep. Waxman’s spokesman.