When Republicans and Democrats join ranks as the gatekeepers of morality and public good, the First Amendment is frequently the casualty. Usually the target is television, where the right to free speech is especially easy prey. TV is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and that means it gets caught up in the machinations of Congress and the White House.
In the latest assault, the issue was children's programming and whether the tube is exposing the kiddies to too much advertising. What politician in his or her right mind would defend the brainwashing of children? Even George Bush, who supposedly inherited his predecessor's predilection for letting the market set the rules, caved in and let a bill regulating advertising on children's TV become law. Bush didn't sign it, but he didn't veto it either.
Supposedly, under the new law, kids will get a little more educational programming and a little less commercial time. And broadcasters will surrender more of their right to show what they want and what the market will bear.
Apparently no one thought to handle the problem of too many commercials by simply turning off the TV. And for all those parents who can't say "no" when Junior demands the G.I. Joe that he saw on TV, Congress has now done the parenting for them.
The sacrifice TV viewers make for all this convenience is the First Amendment, which both parties seem all too eager to jeopardize if they can cloak censorship in sanctimony. Since the 1940s and the genesis of the Fairness Doctrine, Congress has opportunistically trampled on the First Amendment in the broadcast arena. The FCC used the doctrine to force television and radio broadcasters to air opposing points of view when editorializing on issues. The effect of the rule was to ensure blandness instead of diversity. Broadcasters learned that rather than squandering precious air time on John Q. Public, they simply stopped broadcasting editorials that would prompt anyone to demand equal time. In 1987, when the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine, it was all but useless anyway, because meaty broadcast editorials were passe.
That didn't stop Congress from using Reagan's action for some grandstanding. Congress passed a bill reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, and Reagan vetoed the bill. A bipartisan chorus of conservatives and liberals said the media was an unruly child that needed to be regulated. Conservative Republicans complained about the legendary liberal bias of the media. Liberal Democrats said the media had a capitalist agenda and that the only way to get air time for activist causes was to require it under a Fairness Doctrine.
As a practical matter, both sides are wrong. But that doesn't quiet the congressional chorus. Congress continues to tinker with attempts to reassert state control of the media simply because politicians get points at the polls when they make a scapegoat out of the messenger.
The children's broadcasting bill was tailor-made for opportunists. On the pretext of protecting impressionable children from the temptations of commercials, Congress decided it could tell broadcasters how to do their jobs.
Office holders of every ilk flail away at the First Amendment because they can pose as society's moral watchdogs and let somebody else worry about the Constitution. Lawmakers can support the same bill for opposite reasons and then go home and tell their constituents that someone in Washington is looking out for their interests. Today Congress tells a broadcaster what children can and cannot watch and spares parents the chore. Tomorrow, Uncle Sam will be flipping the dial for us.
1990, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.