The Reagan Federal Communications Commission has proposed that Congress repeal the fairness doctrine and "equal time" provisions for broadcasters. Lost in the resulting hoopla is the fact that these provisions are not for broadcasters; they are for viewers, listeners and the electorate, all of whom have First Amendment rights as well.
People often confuse the requirements of fairness and equal time. Equal time applies only to political candidates. When one candidate gets time from a television or radio station, the same opportunity must be provided to an opponent. The fairness doctrine applies to issues, not people. It requires broadcasters, first, to cover important issues in their communities and, second, in doing so, to provide "reasonable" -- but not necessarily equal -- opportunity for conflicting views to be aired.
Rather than censoring speech in violation of the First Amendment, fairness and equal time add more speech on political and social issues, and so further First Amendment goals. In adopting these laws, Congress saw basic differences in the dynamics of the print and broadcast media that justified specialized treatment. Scarcity of broadcast outlets was one factor. But, broadcasters say, why not look at economic reality? Most cities today have many more television and radio stations than they have daily newspapers.
The true comparison, of course, is between all print media the scores of specialized magazines, pamphlets and newsletters that express and mold political and social opinion and a few broadcasting outlets. But even if only daily newspapers are considered, they still have different incentives to air political speech.
Radio is truly more diverse and competitive than television; the realities of this radio market could justify the elimination of an a priori rule demanding coverage of the controversial issues from all stations in every market. A case can be made to relieve radio broadcasters from the first part of the fairness doctrine -- the affirmative obligation to cover issues. But if a station chose to do so, the rules ensuring reasonable treatment of contrasting views should still apply. In any case, equal to access to television and radio by federal political candidates should be retained; there is no more important issue than the election of the national leadership. Some day there may be so many ways for the audience to get information electronically that there will be no real barrier to the source and diversity of information to the individual.
But wishing doesn't make it so, and today is not that day.