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Zip your lip, or pay through the nose

Posted: Friday, October 22, 2004

Low Tide By Brandon Loomis

It seems inevitable that at the end of any tight election campaign partisans will resort to gimmicks of an increasingly preposterous nature. We're no different in Alaska. And so, as the Tony Knowles-Lisa Murkowski Senate race winds down, the Democrats send up a confederate to call the First Amendment illegal.

Anchorage resident Jean Peal, 77, with help from the Democratic Party, filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission claiming that an independent editorial page within the Anchorage Daily News is acting as advertising for Sen. Murkowski's campaign by writing columns in her favor.

Gimmicks sometimes have merit, and sometimes sway voters if only on their emotional appeal. This one's just too silly, though, and if one were to penalize the opinionated at election time, the punishment would have to go both ways. President Bush's hometown newspaper could then be fined for supporting John Kerry. This newspaper would be fined for supporting a new high school in Juneau. The guy who wrote in to call us idiots for supporting a new high school definitely gets a fine. And lastly, Ms. Paal is going to have to go to jail for speaking her mind.

For now, we can be happy that none of this will happen. Call me an idiot, but I like freedom of speech.

The so-called debate in this case is about The Voice of the Times. It's no surprise to anyone that the Voice is partisan conservative, or that it would support Murkowski's candidacy. According to the complaint, it has done so repeatedly in print, such that it smells like a campaign contribution.

Possibly it does contribute in its own way to the campaign. And Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, reports that Voice publisher Bill Allen - chairman of the energy services company Veco Corp. - personally contributed $3,000 to Murkowski's campaign. He's also contributed to Republican political action committees that in turn supported the senator. So, again, The Voice of the Times is partisan. So are many newspapers.

What makes the Voice unusual - and what the complainants argue gives them a case - is that it's not really a newspaper but the shadow of one. The Anchorage Times lost its battle with the Daily News and folded in 1992, when the Daily News purchased it. Part of the purchase agreement provided that the Daily News, which has its own opinion pages, would continue to make space for the Times' conservative views. It's an interesting arrangement, and one that probably should be the envy of other newspapers because of its ready reservoir of potentially opposing views to attract the widest audience possible. Its continued printing is no less legitimate than the parent newspaper's, and that clearly is protected by the Constitution.

The Juneau Empire occasionally reprints the Voice's opinions to give readers a flavor of statewide talk. Should we file a contribution report with the FEC? On cable television, Fox News famously irks liberals with its slant on the news. Is it a campaign violator? How much does the left-leaning The Nation owe?

The Voice of the Times may smell bad to some, but that's where the violation ends. Opinions are protected, no matter which newspaper publishes them. As Sen. Murkowski said this week in Juneau when asked whether The Voice of the Times contributed to her campaign illegally, "Only if the Anchorage Daily News is making an illegal contribution to Tony's."

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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