THE FCC'S fairness doctrine requires television and radio broadcasters to provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of conflicting views on controversial issues of public importance. That is a requirement so obvious and right in purpose that almost no one opposes it in principle. But the doctrine provides a means which - in practice - can be used by anyone to second-guess the news judgments of broadcasters by claiming they present unfair coverage of a major controversy.

In the latest case, the American Security Council Education Foundation claimed CBS had systematically failed to broadcast "hawkish" views on national security while presenting many "dovish" ones. The FCC% rejected the claim without requiring CBS to even respond to it, and the U.S. Court of Appeals had now supported the commission on the ground that "national security" is too broad an arena in which to apply the fairness doctrine.

Any other decision would have been a disaster for broadcasters. National security, as it was defined in thiscase, involved everything from the SALT treaty and relations with China to amnesty for draft evaders and the songs and dances of Chinese children.

It is one thing for the government to require broadcasters to present conflicting views on the SALT treaty, now that one is in hand. It would be quite different to require them to base their overall news judgment on an evaluation of how each item fits with a particular ideology that provides those who advocate (or oppose) it a fixed position on almost every controversy.

The fairness doctrine is not a precision instrument. At best, it can be used to right only the egregious errors of broadcasters on narrowly defined issues. To extend it beyond that, as the critics of CBS tried to do in this case, would either put government in the role of effectively controlling what is broadcast, or lead broadcasters to reduce the amount of air time devoted to controversial issues. Neither result would be good.