Editorial: PR Nightmare

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Want to bet that your home telephone won't ring much on Oct. 1, the day the national no-call registry was supposed to go into effect? At least not from a telemarketer. The registry's status was the question of the day in a confusing off-again-on-again-off-again legal wrangling last week. No doubt, telemarketers will be sitting around their call centers doodling and playing tic-tac-toe on Wednesday, afraid to dial the phone.

In all of this, the telemarketing industry got a loud wake-up call from the public after federal judge Lee West invalidated the registry because the Federal Trade Commission lacked the authority to create one. West's phone is still ringing, as angry consumers vent their frustrations. A day later, Congress also gave West a big raspberry, passing legislation that empowered the FTC to create a registry. Federal judge Edward W. Nottingham threw all that to the wind hours later when he ruled that the list violates telemarketers' right to free speech.

There are several ironies here. One, wasn't Congress a little too vehement in its criticisms of telemarketing when its calls are exempt from the registry? Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said no one likes "hopping up and down like jackrabbits to answer the phone and then hear somebody on the phone try to sell you something." Hey, Chuck, what about people hopping up and down to hear someone solicit donations for the Re-elect Chuck Schumer Campaign? Two, who thinks the Direct Marketing Association regrets filing its lawsuit in the first place? The DMA said West ruled correctly in its case, but it urged "the entire telemarketing industry to respect the wishes of consumers" who have registered for the list. Or, here's my translation: "We're sorry. We didn't think we were going to actually win the lawsuit. We just filed it to appease our telemarketing members."

Sadly, the telemarketing industry looks like the bad guy in all this -- especially because of the first ruling -- when it's not. Who's to blame? FTC chairman Tim Muris, whose heart is in the right place -- trying to make the country a safer place for Americans -- but he didn't follow the rules. He should have gone to Congress and said, "Look guys, we want to create this list. First, give us the authority to do it. Then, give us the money to set it up." He didn't do that. Still, isn't it funny how Congress can pass a bill in less than a day if it wants to, but it hasn't been able to tackle postal reform in 30 years?


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