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Newspapers Put the Squeeze on State Legislators
Guess which industry was busy lobbying against a bill regulating its business practices in the days leading up to last week's primary? The answer is, the newspaper industry--the same one that holds the power of the endorsement pen in election season.And one local legislator said it made her feel uncomfortable.

The North Carolina Press Association and publishers of major newspapers like The News & Observer are trying to get lawmakers to exempt media outlets from a bill aimed at reducing unwanted telemarketing calls. The measure, which is being pushed by state Attorney General Roy Cooper and is now before the House Judiciary II Committee, would set up a "no-call" customer registry that telemarketers would have to honor or face paying fines.

Cooper and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have been lobbying hard for the bill, which they say would protect vulnerable customers from unwanted or illegal telemarketing calls. "Everywhere I go in North Carolina, people complain about telemarketing," Cooper says. "A no-call registry will not only help protect people from annoyance, but also from fraud."

Media industry representatives counter that the bill threatens the press' First Amendment rights to distribute news to the public. And, they say, consumers are already protected by federal regulations that require telemarketers to remove those people who specifically request it, from their call lists.

"Telemarketing is commercial," says John Bussian, legislative counsel for the state Press Association. But in the case of media subscription calls, "its core content is the distribution of non-commercial speech."

One member of the House Judiciary Committee says the experience of hearing from media leaders on House Bill 1612 was awkward. State Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake) who is running for re-election, says she wasn't given any reason to think her support for the no-call measure would jeopardize potential newspaper endorsements. But, she adds, "When you get a message from the publisher of The N&O saying 'exempt newspapers,' and a visit from the general counsel of the Press Association, and you're talked to about the bill by the editor of The Chapel Hill News--I'm being put in a difficult position."

Newspapers leaders see no endorsement-season conflict in their lobbying activities. N&O publisher Orage Quarles, who's a member of his newspaper's editorial board, insists that "it doesn't matter what time of year it is. We make endorsements and give our opinions about issues every day."

Bussian, of the Press Association, points out that his organization's lobbyists may be the only ones who are expressly prohibited from making campaign contributions. "I've heard now from three or four reporters on this. I have to think the attorney general is trying to spread this idea that we are improperly influencing people," he adds. "They said nothing about this last year when we were over there advocating on other free press interests. This is something we do year in and year out."

The media industry wasn't the first to ask for immunity from the no-call regulations. Banks and credit companies were among the businesses that opposed the measure at the start. They were won over by concessions made by the bill sponsors that exempt telemarketing calls made to existing customers. Calls by nonprofits and survey researchers were never included in the proposed law.

Citing exemptions for the media in 12 of the 20 states that have "no-call" laws on the books, newspapers have been busy writing editorials decrying Cooper's bill. In an appearance before the judiciary committee, Quarles noted that almost 60 percent of new newspaper subscriptions come from telemarketing, and that newspapers have been calling customers for years without complaints.

"The unique and close ties between a newspaper and its local community provides a strong check on telemarketing practices," Quarles, a former president of the Newspaper Association of America, wrote in a July letter to Cooper. "Newspapers are among the least likely to engage in abusive practices, offer questionable products or ignore consumer requests" to be put on do-not-call lists.

Cooper says he doesn't mind that newspapers have been lobbying on the bill--even during campaign season. But he disputes their contention that this is a fight about the free press. "I'm strong for the First Amendment and open government," the attorney general says. "But this is about business. Intrusive telemarketing calls should not be protected whether the business is selling aluminum siding or newspapers."

As to the argument that First Amendment protections cover the distribution and sales of news products, as well as their content, Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff--who has written extensively about press freedoms--has this to say: "My instinctive reaction is, that's an argument that may be technically legal, but which I find dubious."

More by Barbara Solow

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