BOB GARFIELD: It began at a congressional hearing about network coverage of November's election night fiasco. California Democrat Henry Waxman had heard a rumor that Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric Company which owns NBC had been rooting in the newsroom for George W. Bush and even pressuring news staffers to call the close race for Bush. Waxman had further been told that there was a video tape made by NBC's promotions department capturing indicting evidence of Welch's interference. At the hearing he asked then-NBC news president Andrew Lack if such a tape existed. Lack, under oath, said if he could find such a tape he would send it to Waxman. More than 9 months later, in spite of a spate of increasingly sharp official correspondence and a not-too-veiled threat about a congressional subpoena, no tape has been delivered. Congressman Waxman joins us now. Congressman, welcome to On the Media!
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you. Pleased to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, why do we care?
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: I, I think we should care for two reasons. One, we don't know, and this tape may tell us whether he in fact pressured the news people to make the decision rather than have the news people make the decision. Secondly, NBC uses the public airwaves. They have a public responsibility. E--Even if they're owned by General Electric, there has to be some kind of separation between the corporate ownership and the news people.
BOB GARFIELD:Andrew Lack while I guess from your perspective maddeningly refusing to actually address your direct questions does in some of his correspondence make a trenchant point, and he says that all of the networks relying on the same voter news service data called the election for George W. Bush within moments of one another. So doesn't that mean, ipso facto, that the real problems were elsewhere on election night and the Welch situation is provocative but basically just a red herring.
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: It, it -- you could look at it that way, and maybe the tape would show that Jack Welch just happened to be in the r-- in the room and nothing went on. But NBC was second to call the election for Bush, and-- we ought to have this thing re--resolved by knowing what is on that tape.
BOB GARFIELD:Understanding that this is supposedly a promotional video we're discussing, not of the news gathering process, shouldn't I still be queasy about the government compelling a network to turn over any material? Isn't there a very serious First Amendment issue here?
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: I don't think this is a question of the government asking for a tape of the internal deliberations of the news people, and it relates to not an internal news discussion but perhaps an, an external interference with the decisions by the news people at NBC.
BOB GARFIELD:In your last love letter to Andy Lack you seemed to be threatening NBC with a subpoena! Now that's a can of worms. Congress just doesn't subpoena news organizations; at least not successfully. Is this situation whatever happened there on election night worth a constitutional battle?
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: It's a hypothetical whether we're going to go to a subpoena or not. The real question is what is NBC going to do now that there's some attention paid--being paid to this whole matter. The-- Andy Lack has a, a personal responsibility to-- keep the promise that he made to the Congress under oath.
BOB GARFIELD:Oh, yeah, the under oath you also invoked in the correspondence. You're not suggesting some sort of-- I don't know, contempt of Congress perjury possibility down the road if he doesn't respond, having said he would do so under oath.
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: I, I, I-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Are you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --I'm suggesting that when somebody testifies before Congress and they're under oath, if they promise to give information to the Congress, they have a responsibility to do so. Now, would he be convicted of a crime for not doing it? I, I, I don't suggest that at all! But I don't think that people ought to take oaths and then disregard them and think it's unimportant.
BOB GARFIELD:The whole epistolary exchange between you guys has been pr-- you know pretty hilarious. Obviously the stakes are high but the, the correspondence is a lot of fun to read. [LAUGHTER] You know, it's ultra-polite; you're very respectful of one another, but it's - it gets increasingly confrontational. Congressman who actually writes your letters? [LAUGHTER] He or she is-- is a genius!
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: Well thank, thank you very much. We'll -- I will compliment everybody who's been involved in drafting those letters and I take the compliment personally-- as well and you might ask Mr. Lack because it sounds like he wrote his himself, and--
BOB GARFIELD: But he, he responds to you without actually responding to your direct request. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN:See-- I did say to him in one of my letters that if his news people accepted the kind of answer that he gave to my question, he would fire them because they're not being very good!
BOB GARFIELD:All right. I'll ask one more question. In the unlikely event that NBC surrenders this videotape and it shows Jack Welch unabashedly rooting in the newsroom for George W. Bush and saying to whoever's running the news desk when are you going to call it, when are you going to call it?-- then what do you do?
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: Well you know I'm not going to - I'm not going to speculate on that. I don't know the facts; I think we ought to know the facts and then we'll - and then we'll see where the facts take us.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Thank you very much!
CONGRESSMAN HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: Henry Waxman is a California Democrat and member of the house energy and commerce committee.