BACK IN THE early days of radio, when stations were few and access to broadcasting limited, government had a definite duty to ensure some measure of political fair play on the air. Out of that era came a "fairness doctrine" and an "equal time provision," followed by years of legal fussing and fine-tuning about what is "fair," and what any of this may have to do with the relationship of air time in minutes to viewpoints in degrees. Now, with defenders of these provisions crying foul, the Federal Communications Commission has voted to seek repeal of both rules. Should Congress agree? We think so.
First, let us make the requisite "disclosure." These are the views of an organization with an interest in broadcasting. But something quite different and detached from that interest has animated this newspaper's discomfort over the years with the FCC doctrines in question. They seem to us inimical to the interests of good and independent journalism.
Fairness is clearly not a value to be disparaged or treated lightly. But it has surely not been consistently served by the FCC's fairness doctrine. The rule requires broadcasters, once they have decided to cover an issue or event of public importance, to "afford a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints." The original aim was "to maintain broadcasting as a medium of free speech not just for a relatively few licensees, but for all the American people."
But no longer are we talking about "relatively few licensees." With AM, FM, cable television, satellites, tapes, cassettes and who-knows-what in the offing, there are more electronic outlets than there are newspapers. Even if the fairness doctrine were a precision instrument -- which it never has been -- broadcasting stations now outnumber daily newspapers by more than 5 to 1. Mark S. Fowler, chairman of the FCC, made the point nicely when he observed on the op-ed page yesterday: "Here in Washington, we have nearly 40 radio stations: we have at least seven local television stations. We have only one daily newspaper."
In addition, the fairness doctrine all too often has simply become a means of assaulting the news judgments of broadcasters and their right to reach these judgments, by claiming that they present unfair coverage of a major controversy. Presenting conflicting views on an issue is one thing, but broadcasters should not be required to base their overall news judgments on an evaluation of how each report may or may not fit with a particular ideology. The broadcasters should be held accountable for their news judgments, but they should not be denied a full opportunity to exercise it. At the extremes, the fairness doctrine can lead to government control of what is broadcast. In more normal circumstances, it leads broadcasters to reduce the amount of air time devoted to controversial public issues.
The "equal time" provision has been much worse, creating more problems than it has solved. Equal air time for candidates has little to do with fairness, anyway; it only means that almost anyone filing for a public office gets equal time regardless of any seriousness of intention. The losers under this rule have been the voters, who often have been deprived of a good look at genuine office-seekers because stations either could not afford or would not grant time for everybody running. Even when it comes to equal time for political advertising, the rule has merely meant offering all candidates the chance to purchase the same amount of time as any one candidate -- and never mind that this one is spending more than any other can.
Congress may not be ready to toss out both rules entirely right now -- and a case can be made for cautious repeal. As Commissioner Joseph Fogarty noted in dissent, his home does not have access to cable or to any of the other new distribution techniques. But the day is coming when virtually all people will have access to these media and -- along with those providing the news and views -- can determine for themselves what's fair.