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RNC considered charging networks for broadcast rights to presidential debates: report

Facing a gaping $23 million debt, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is in search of innovative ways to not only close the gap but stay competitive in 2012. Newly elected chairman Reince Priebus has his work cut out for him.

So what’s a nearly bankrupt party to do? For one, Priebus is reportedly considering selling off the broadcast rights to the RNC‘s presidential debates — a move with significant legal and moral ambiguities.

While the RNC says it is not officially considering such an action, two Republican insiders with knowledge of the proposal have stepped forward, telling CNN that it came up at a recent RNC meeting.

Generally, news networks host debates which candidates participate in, and it’s not clear how much they might pay for access to such an event, or even if they would agree in the first place.

Should the Republican party itself host the debate and charge networks the right to share images with their viewers, it would mark an unprecedented step into money-fueled politics. Never before in American history has a public forum on who will be elected to the highest office in the land been so cordoned off by wealth.

It also raises the prospect of copyright claims related to videos of political candidates at debates, which could potentially become private property that may not be modified or distributed outside of unapproved venues.

Then there’s federal election law, which prohibits political action committees from donating more than $30,800 to a political party in a single year. Selling off the broadcast rights to a major network could be construed as soliciting a political donation; and that donation’s amount would most certainly be over $30,800.

Larry Noble, a former general counsel with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), told CNN he wasn’t sure whether the move would be illegal, or if the FEC would do anything about it.

“The parties would have to show that this was in the ordinary course of business, and the media outlets would have to show it’s in the ordinary course of their media business or news business to pay for this type of event,” he reportedly said.

Should the RNC decide to move ahead with the proposal, the conservative Fox News Chanel would seem to be an obvious potential bidder, but it was unclear as to whether that would upset their already-laid plans.

“We’re thinking of a 13 week series like ‘American Idol’ or ‘Dancing with the Stars’: ‘The GOP Presidential Primary’,” Fox News lead anchor Chris Wallace explained in a recent chat with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart.

“The Republican primaries will be a production of Fox News,” he added the following day.

The conservative network, which many have criticized as more a mouthpiece for the GOP than a dedicated news shop, gave over $55 million in free airtime to Republicans seen as likely candidates for the party’s 2012 presidential nomination.

Fox News parent company News Corporation has also donated millions of dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association, and many Republicans viewed as leading 2012 contenders are or have been until recently paid contributors on the network.

Additionally, recent information leaks from a Fox News insider revealed that news teams have been ordered to slant hot-button stories in certain ways, like calling a proposed public health program “the government option,” or pretending there’s significant question in the scientific community about whether climate change is really happening.

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