During one of the perennial debates on whether broadcasters should continue to have second-class First Amendment Rights, Richard Salant, who was then in charge of CBS News, said:
"Suppose the English governor had told Tom Paine that he could go ahead and publish all he liked -- but only if at the back of his pamphlets he also printed the Royal Governor's views. That command, far from being an implementation of free speech, would have been just the opposite."
Salant's analogy struck me with particular force because I have spent a fair amount of time working at radio and television stations in a state of precarious balance and was delighted to be back in the relatively free world of print. But, more than Salant, it was Justice William O. Douglas who particularly illuminated for me the fundamental flaw of the alleged Fairness Doctrine:
"The prospect of putting government in a position of control . . . is to me an appalling one even to the expense of the Fairness Doctrine. The struggle for liberty has been a struggle against government. . . . I fail to see how constitutionally we can treat TV and radio differently than we treat newspapers."
The Fairness Doctrine, however, has many fervent supporters. (It requires that a broadcaster devote a reasonable percentage of air time to covering controversial issues, as well as reasonable opportunities for opposing viewpoints to be heard.) Indeed, this doctrine may be the only issue on which such otherwise fierce antagonists as Phyllis Schlafly and Norman Lear's People for the American Way -- along with the American Legal Foundation and the ACLU -- have joined hands.
On the other side are the broadcasters, of course, and a steadily increasing number of newspapers. Those on the print side have come to the conviction that government should not be involved in the content of what's broadcast any more than in what's printed. Even as a referee. Referees, after all, can determine the course of the game.
The paladins of the Fairness Doctrine argue that so long as there is a scarcity of channels -- more folks wanting to own a station than there are stations to own -- the Fairness Doctrine must survive in order to prevent a monopoly of expression in any particular area of the country. One problem with that daguerreotype view of the spectrum is that in every hamlet and city there are more radio, television and cable outlets than there are newspapers.
Alas, only 1,688 daily newspapers are still breathing, and of that number just 53 are in competition with each other in the same market.
Radio and television stations, however, continue to proliferate (there now being 9,766 of the former and 1,208 of the latter, not counting all the cable operations). And broadcast stations are in direct competition with each other. The likelihood, therefore, of there being a monopoly of broadcast views is remote. Even in the rare locality where a station has a lock on one town, other stations come in from around the state -- certainly radio stations.
Nonetheless, the grand ecumenical coalition for the Fairness Doctrine still thumps its bass drum in alarm whenever there seems to be some danger that broadcasters may yet be emancipated from government surveillance over what they broadcast. At the same time, though, it deplores the present Federal Communications Commission's lack of enthusiasm for the Fairness Doctrine and its lamentable passivity as an enforcer.
Or, as Phyllis Schlafly put it, once FCC Chairman Mark Fowler's views on the Fairness Doctrine became known "the outrageous and blatant anti-Reagan bias of the TV network newscast accelerated rapidly."
Should a liberal Democrat be elected president in 1988, the FCC might well change in composition, with the Fairness Doctrine becoming an urgent priority as the new FCC responds with sensitivity and dispatch to such complainants as the National Education Association, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the ACLU and other liberal fans of the Fairness Doctrine. These are all groups, mind you, that otherwise believe in the First Amendment.
The FCC is now unequivocally on record as saying that the Fairness Doctrine is constitutionally "suspect" and "involves government intimidation of the media in scrutinizing programming." But, Congress will not accept this analysis. For how can anything be inimical to the public interest that is so devotedly supported by both Schlafly and Lear?
When I was in radio, one of my fantasies was having Tom Paine on for half an hour. After the complaints to the FCC as a result of that program -- and hardly from only the Tories -- the station's lawyers would have been tied up withthe FCC bureaucracy for at least a year and the station manager would have canceled my session with Sam Adams.