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FCC: OK For Utica TV Station To Cancel Debate

The FCC won’t act on a Binghamton man’s complaint regarding a report that a Utica television station opted not to air a program with a challenger to Congressman Richard Hanna after Hanna indicated he wouldn’t run commercials on the station.

John Solak filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission October 5 after news stories indicated an email written by the general manager of WUTR expressed concern that ad dollars from Hanna would be jeopardized if the station went forward with a planned debate.

Hanna — an Oneida County Republican — declined a debate invitation but his Democratic challenger Dan Lamb accepted.

Without both candidates willing to face each other, Lamb reportedly was offered an opportunity to discuss issues by himself. Lamb’s campaign said that offer was rescinded.

Hanna’s campaign has denied any threat was made to withhold advertising dollars if Lamb’s solo appearance wasn’t cancelled.

Solak told WNBF Radio’s Binghamton Now program he complained to the FCC about the possible linking of a commercial buy with the move to pull the airtime offered to Hanna’s challenger.

Solak said he received a reply from the regulatory agency today.

In an email, Mark Berlin of the FCC Media Bureau’s Policy Division wrote the agency is “prohibited by statute from censoring or dictating program content,” so it cannot “order the station to air such a debate.”

Solak expressed disappointment with the FCC response.

Hanna spokeswoman Renee Gamela could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

In a statement released by his campaign manager, Dan Lamb said: “It is wrong for a sitting U.S. Congressman to use his money and influence to coerce a television station to not cover his opponent. People can see right through the denials put out by the Hanna campaign, because there is a clear paper trail. Regardless of what the FCC says, what happened here is a serious ethical lapse.”

The email from the Federal Communications Commission to John Solak:

 

From: Mark Berlin

Date: October 18, 2012 6:55:53 AM EDT

Subject: Complaint to FCC regarding Station WUTR(TV)

This is with respect to your October 5 complaint that Station WUTR (TV) in Utica cancelled a candidate debate after incumbent Congressman Richard Hanna threatened to withdraw his advertising from the station.

You feel this was not in the public interest.

While it is unfortunate that a candidate debate is not being aired, there is no requirement that a station broadcast such a debate in the first place, and it is entirely within its discretion — for whatever reason — to cancel it if it wants. One reason that might have weighed on this decision could have been the Congressman’s unwillingness to participate. The FCC is prohibited by statute from censoring or dictating program content, so we could not order the station to air such a debate.

Sincerely,

Mark Berlin

Policy Division (political office)

Media Bureau

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