Yes, we do own the airwaves.
The public is the landlord and the broadcaster is the tenant. Broadcasters, who volunteered to serve as exclusive licensees, agree to the terms of the lease, which, besides free rent, include the duty to contribute to a well-informed citizenry, a citizenry that receives access to diverse sides of controversial issues. This duty exists regardless of the number of licensed stations.
The concept is simple enough. Anyone who can't accept these rules doesn't have to; after all, plenty of buyers are in the wings, willing to pay millions of dollars for a station.
Unfortunately, the Reagan Federal Communications Commission has turned its back on the notion that broadcasters must serve the public, in direct contradiction to the 1934 Communications Act, which requires broadcasters to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity." Networks and local stations, especially in radio, have responded by cutting news staffs and abolishing public affairs programming. Some stations have cut locally originated programming altogether -- in Vineland, N.J., for example, the only local TV station is a 24-hour home shopping network program.
Congress will shortly revisit the worst of the commission's deeds: the repeal of the fairness doctrine. For 40 years, the fairness doctrine required broadcasters to cover contrasting viewpoints regarding controversial issues of public importance, and to do so fairly. The FCC abolished it last August.
Congress should not underestimate the importance of the pending vote to reinstate the regulation. If it had any doubts, it should look at the behavior of some broadcasters in the four months since the FCC repealed the doctrine. We see that the only broadcaster in Jackson County, N.C., can use his station to promote a school bond referendum, ignoring the viewpoints of bond opponents. We see that a Florida labor group was unable even to buy issue ads responding to broadcasters' spots opposing the Florida advertising tax. From Maine to Louisiana, broadcasters have used the repeal of the doctrine as an excuse for ignoring the viewpoints of those with whom they don't agree, or those who cannot pay commercial rates but nonetheless have information the voting public has a right to hear.
What is more, without the fairness doctrine, broadcasters who endorse or oppose a candidate on the air are no longer required to inform other candidates of that fact, much less let them reply. Thus, a broadcaster can shower the airwaves with praise for his or her hand-picked choice for office, ignoring altogether the needs of the audience -- the voters -- to make informed choices among all the candidates.
Newspapers do not have similar obligations. Unlike the public airwaves, newspapers are privately owned. To start a newspaper, one doesn't require a license. Broadcasting is a more immediately persuasive medium than print. The beverage industry in D.C. did not rely on ads in The Post to defeat the bottle bill -- it went on the air. Clearly, the broadcast license -- given to the lucky applicant selected by the government -- can confer the power to determine the outcome of debate at the local level.
The genius of the fairness doctrine is that it promotes debate without interfering in the editorial process. Nothing in the fairness doctrine ever denies a broadcaster the right to say what he or she pleases. Rather, compliance is attained by carrying more, not less, discussion of issues. Indeed, in the handful of cases where a formal complaint is even considered on the merits -- six or so per year -- the FCC never contemplates more than a directive to provide more coverage. And even that remedy hasn't been used in years.
Not surprisingly, the public supports the fairness doctrine. A recent poll commissioned by Electronic Media magazine shows that the public -- by almost a two-to-one margin -- favors the protection the fairness doctrine provides. That support, the poll shows, crosses all income brackets and educational levels. Moreover, support for the fairness doctrine is truly bipartisan: its supporters include such diverse groups and individuals as General Motors and Common Cause, the NRA and NOW, Phyllis Schlafly and Ted Kennedy. Many broadcasters support the doctrine, including group station owner Westinghouse.
Why? Because they know that the public has a First Amendment right to the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources. And that right, the U.S. Supreme Court has said, unanimously, is "paramount."
Earlier this year, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that would codify the fairness doctrine, but President Reagan vetoed the legislation. This time it will be attached to a bill he will find more difficult to refuse. As Congress again debates the fairness doctrine, it should not have trouble understanding that those renting valuable public property for nothing have some modest limits on their power to exclude contrasting viewpoints.
Ralph Nader is a Washington lawyer. David Danner is an attorney with the Media Access Project.