Over the past year as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, I have set forth my views on the relation of the First Amendment and the electronic media. My views are plain, simple and sure: broadcasting deserves the same status as print under the "freedom . . . of the press" clause in the Constitution.
My insistence on First Amendment rights for broadcasters surprises some who know me as a conservative Republican. Some notable conservatives believe that more, not less restraint should be imposed on broadcast news organizations, particularly network television, which they view as biased against conservatives.
Television cannot be trusted to deal fairly with conservatives and their point of view; tools like the Fairness Doctrine, the argument goes, really protect conservatives by preventing broadcasters from coloring their reporting with a liberal viewpoint to which they are naturally inclined.
Despite these grumblings--and the feeling is not exclusively a conservative one--I feel that it is correct constitutionally and as a conservative to support less, not more restraint on the press. To my mind, true conservatism means less involvement by the government in the lives and affairs of people. Content regulation of broadcasting is out of place in this scheme.
Perhaps some would like to see a federal commission telling newspapers to match, column inch for column inch, political ads they may accept. This same commission might be able to require newspapers to justify their coverage of a bond issue or whether they presented all sides of a tiff in the city council. Maybe this commission would tell them to get rid of sports scores and use the space for information deemed more valuable.
These are the types of decisions the FCC has gotten itself into over the last 30 years. It is content regulation that, no matter how lofty in intent, has no place in a country that guarantees freedom of the press in its Constitution.
Still, it's not often easy to resist the temptation to try to use broadcast regulations now on the books. This has been true of every administration since the advent of radio in America.
Sometimes coverage raises questions of simple fairness. Recently, the White House had to counter the impression left by a television documentary that purported to demonstrate the effects of the president's economic program on selected American families. The result was a very powerful documentary about some very unfortunate people.
But the program unfairly tied the misfortunes entirely to our economic recovery program. In doing so, it left a misleading impression about the president's efforts, but one not easily rebutted in a press conference, at least poised against the stirring style of the documentary.
Faced with what may be unfair treatment by some members of the electronic press, conservatives are surely lured to invoke rules like the Fairness Doctrine to try to get the other side across. But this is the wrong approach.
What principles do I follow in reaching equal treatment for print and broadcasting?
First, no one can expect the press to "get on the team" when it comes to an administration's policies. The healthiest government-press relationship is one that can be described as "adversary." In using "adversary," I do not mean an antagonistic press that leaps before it looks. I do mean one that looks both ways before going into the streets with a story.
An adversary relationship imposes responsibilities on both sides. For those at the White House, it means never circling the wagons because they don't happen to like the way reporters are carrying a particular story. It means giving answers to reporters whenever they can; and when they can't, explaining why. It means not expecting the press to be a public relations arm, to do the job of justifying a president's policies to the people.
There are responsibilities for the press in an adversary relationship as well. The first is to report what is said--in short, to get it right. No administration likes criticism. But criticism is a lot easier to bear when it's based on a faithful account of what's being said or done. There's probably no more frustrating experience in government than to work long hours putting together a program only to find that a reporter won't take the time to understand it, or isn't given the opportunity to report it in a comprehensible fashion.
This problem particularly arises in broadcasting. It's been recognized that network news is often limited to a headline service. I don't fault broadcasters for this time limitation. But there are all sorts of headlines: some are used to sell papers; others are used to convey ideas.
I find in broadcasting an obnoxious tendency toward what I call "news yak." News yak is copy that conveys not information, but charm; it's used to impress people rather than inform people, to parade fluff instead of providing facts.
I don't object to editorial commentary in broadcasting or anywhere else. Nor am I claiming that broadcast reporters routinely mix news and commentary. Reporters are like any other people; they come to their work with experiences bound to shape perceptions. But if they are professional, they put their biases to one side and get on with the job of reporting as accurately as they can.
The problem is more a professional one. In the drive to become more interesting or flamboyant, the facts tend to run away from them; style overwhelms substance. Perhaps the root of the problem lies in the reporter's trying to convince a news producer to select his or her story from among the many vying for precious broadcast minutes. It's awfully hard to get it right when you're more concerned about getting it on.
And there is a second aspect to network news errors. In Thomas Jefferson's days, a newpaper that made a good faith error could retract or otherwise correct the mistake the next day. While hurtful, the mistake could be remedied. In fact, retraction laws remain on the books in many states; you can't sue for libel unless you've first asked for and been denied a retraction.
But with network news, when the truth is overturned, it is not quite so easy to set it right again. Audiences for evening newscasts shift somewhat each night. With documentaries, the likelihood of reaching the same audience in a followup broadcast is slimmer. Once an error occurs, the damage is done and is, for the most part, irremediable. Getting it right is all the more important . . . because getting it wrong can be so disastrous.
For those of us in government, the most important thing we can remember is to stay out of the way of the editor. As the Supreme Court said in 1973, "for better or worse, editing is what editors are for . . . That editors--newspaper or broadcast-- can and do abuse this power is beyond doubt, but that is not reason to deny the discretion Congress provided. Calculated risks of abuse were taken in order to preserve higher values." Those values are freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
It's difficult for those who have the power yet to regulate the electronic press to remember this important idea. But remember it we must; the press must be free to report, to do its job, even though in doing so, it makes mistakes.
Likewise, carrying out this function, the press must remember that, though it owes no duty to any particular political leader, it owes one to the political process itself. Unlike any other American industry, the press receives special protection under our Constitution: the founding fathers prohibited Congress from restricting the freedom of the press to do its job.
That job always has been first and foremost to get the story and to get it right. It is not simply to get the story first. As we move to establish full First Amendment rights for broadcasters, we can expect no more from the press. The American people deserve no less.