Today’s announcement from John McCain that he is suspending his Presidential campaign to work on issues dealing with the economic bailout, and that he will not participate in Friday’s scheduled Presidential debate if the bailout package has not been enacted, raises an interesting question about the application of the FCC’s equal opportunities rules. If Barack Obama were to appear at the debate and answer questions, and that appearance was televised, would the stations that carried the debates later be subject to a claim for equal opportunities by the McCain campaign? Under FCC precedent, the answer would be "yes." Debates are exempt from equal opportunities because they constitute on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event – one of the exemptions from equal opportunities specified in the Communications Act. However, as we’ve written before, debates were not always considered exempt and, at one time, if all candidates (including all minor party candidates) were not included in the debate, any excluded candidate could demand equal time. Thus, debates rarely occurred. In the 1970s, the FCC loosened the rules to permit debates to be covered as news events, even if minor party candidates were excluded, without triggering equal opportunities obligations – if there were reasonable, objective criteria used to determine which candidates could participate. However, in doing so, the FCC concluded that, if only one candidate showed up for a debate, it was not a true debate, and thus not exempt from the equal opportunities doctrine.
What would this mean if a station was to cover a debate where Obama showed and McCain did not? If the McCain campaign were to timely request equal opportunities, stations would have to provide to McCain time equal to the amount of time that Obama appeared on screen, and McCain could do anything with that time that he wanted – he would not have to answer questions from the debate moderator. Thus, traditionally, if only one candidate shows up for a scheduled debate that is supposed to be broadcast, the debate (or at least the broadcast) is canceled.