Every time that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark S. Fowler meets with broadcasting industry officials, he talks about his yet-to-be born grandchildren and his fear that they may be deprived of "true freedom," just as the Germans were under the Nazis and the Poles now are under Communism.
Fowler says that the reason for his fear is that, so long as the government continues to require owners of radio and television stations to broadcast all sides of a controversial issue and give equal time to political candidates for the same office, there is a great potential for some government official to manipulate these rules and restrain free speech.
"In the same way Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joesph Goebbels took over the reins in Germany and the military took over in Poland, some bad guy in the White House could be manipulating the media here," Fowler has told broadcasters to explain why he is pushing so vigorously for the repeal of the government's equal-time and fairness rules.
These "sermons"--as one broadcasting industry official has called Fowler's comments--are being delivered with increasing frequency, even though key members of Congress repeatedly have made it clear that they do not intend to relax those two major broadcasting regulations.
As a result, a number of communications lawyers in Washington are raising questions about Fowler's political savvy, wondering why the chairman is spending such a large part of his time on a cause that is clearly not about to go very far any time soon.
There is a growing consensus in Washington that Fowler is an ideologue, deeply committed to getting rid of all government rules affecting the broadcasting industry.
"He is not a politician; he's a purist--that commands a certain respect," notes a communications lawyer. However, that lawyer points out at the same time that this trait is also one of Fowler's chief weaknesses, illustrating his lack of the political skills he must have to achieve even part of his goals.
Fowler has stormier relations with Congress than any other recent chairman of the FCC, and the Hill has rebuked him repeatedly for not following its will. In fact, the strongest critics have been his Republican colleagues in the Senate who, instead of supporting his causes, have criticized him for failing to carry out the law.
Dissatisfaction was so deep last summer that Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee refused to support Fowler's nominee for the Republican seat on the FCC. In a highly unusual and bitter confrontation, the committee finally agreed to confirm Fowler's choice, Stephen A. Sharp--but only after it drastically reshaped the commission, reducing it from seven to five commissioners as of next June. In the process, Sharp's seven-year-term was cut to only nine months. Communications experts predict that, without Sharp's vote on the commission, it may be difficult for Fowler to achieve many of his deregulatory goals.
Communications lawyers note that just as Fowler has been unable to have friendly relations with Congress, his relations with other commissioners--while more cordial than those enjoyed by some previous FCC chairmen--has also lacked some political finesse.
While all praise Fowler for his down-to-earth personal style, several fault the chairman for his great reliance on his personal staff, objecting to his practice of talking to the commissioners through his aides.
What's more, "He seems not to get around and make sure he has the votes lined up before matters come up on agenda," an FCC observer noted in a comment echoed by others.
As a result, Fowler has lost several key decisions on the commission, including its 6-to-1 vote to give half of all government licenses for the new mobile-telephone service to telephone companies.
Fowler and the staff of the common carrier bureau argued that this set-aside was illegal and therefore opposed it, instead of trying to compromise as several commissioners have said they were willing to do..
"Maybe he felt it was right to take the purist attitude, but it's not particularly good for a chairman to lose 6 to 1," notes one well-respected communications lawyer.
"You never like to be in the minority," acknowledges Fowler. Even so, the chairman says his position on the new mobile-telephone service is "a vote I do not regret." Fowler adds that he believes he will be proven right, predicting that the courts will knock down the commission's decision as an unlawful preference for telephone companies.
Fowler is equally unrepentant about his all-consuming drive to get Congress to repeal the rules regulating program content on television and radio.
"I won't apologize for it," he says to critics who charge that he is wasting time pushing for something Congress clearly doesn't want.
"I don't think that anyone who reads the First Amendment--and reads the language that 'Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech and press'--and then looks at the whole gamut of content regulation that we have on the books right now can avoid the conclusion that what we do is unconstitutional and, I think, dangerous. I, therefore, feel it is worth the effort and time," he says.
Fowler, a communications lawyer, came to the commission after serving as President Reagan's communications adviser during Reagan's 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns.
Even before he took over the chairmanship, Fowler made it clear that he intended to remove hundreds of regulations that television and radio station owners have complained about for years.
Television "is just another appliance--it's a toaster with pictures," he said in an interview just after taking office. Consequently, he argued, there is no reason for it to be regulated so tightly.
That view is clearly reflected in the agency's agenda. Over the past 20 months, the commission has been busy deregulating the broadcasting industry--moving to lift hundreds of paperwork requirements, dozens of rules limiting the financial interests of broadcasters and a handful of entry barriers for a host of new types of broadcasting stations.
The bulk of these regulation moves had begun long before Fowler joined the commission. But he still is taking credit for them because they became final during his administration.
"We've authorized more new service than any other administration," he says. What's more, he adds, "We're doing all the hard implementation."