When you turn to these pages, you expect to find controversy, overall balance and, possibly, enlightenment. What you don't expect to find are the initials of a government censor in the corner, approving the layout, presentation and reasonableness of the editor.
But if this page contained the transcript of a television or radio station, and not the words of myself and other writers, those initials are exactly what you'd find. And, under the law today, those initials would be mine.
The reason is the fairness doctrine, a government policy that requires broadcasters to provide opportunities for contrasting viewpoints on issues of public importance. Now, fairness is a virtue of good journalism. But it's another thing for government officials to be second-guessing journalists.
Last year, in a comprehensive study of the history and effects of the fairness doctrine, the Federal Communications Commission concluded that the doctrine was the wrong way to ensure the public access to diverse viewpoints on controversial viewpoints. Rather than there being a "scarcity" of information sources, we found the public has scores of outlets -- from magazines to broadcasting, from direct mail to newspapers -- from which to hear a diversity of viewpoints and attitudes.
But many would still have government continue to enforce the fairness doctrine. They insist it works, even though the government-ordered "correction" comes sometimes years after the initial, supposedly unfair, broadcast took place. And despite the world of outlooks and opinions surrounding the output of a single radio or television signal, they think that the doctrine alone guarantees that the public gets a balanced outlook on things.
It's foolish, of course. Worse, it suggests something about those who want to continue enforcement of the doctrine. Their purpose is plain: continue licensing the content of one segment of an ever expanding electronic press. Their implicit assumption is that the common man is too dimwitted to discern the truth among diverse voices, fair and unfair, moderate and extreme. Yet the American people have been well served by newspapers for more than 200 years, with no fairness doctrine for print, no Federal Newspaper Commission.
If this were just a matter of chit- chat among press-law buffs, maybe I wouldn't argue so often and so uncompromisingly for elimination of the doctrine. But it's not. The fairness doctrine can hurt.
As the FCC's report makes clear, instead of enhancing the discussion of controversial issues, the doctrine "chills" speech. Our record is replete with examples from stations, large and small, that told of their fear of government punishment if their coverage of a controversial issue missed the FCC's mark for fairness.
Broadcasters decided it was "safer" not to carry programs on controversial issues. Why cover the nuclear arms race, religious cults, municipal salaries or other matters of concern, and risk losing your license? When a lawsuit can cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and many times more in lost staff time, why take the risk? What happens is that broadcasters don't -- they don't as matter of institutional policy. And they are wary of letting anyone else do so on their frequency, either. I'd suggest you look at what's happening with W. R. Grace & Co.'s current, controversial TV ad about the risks of high deficits. On second thought, forget it. Look, but you will not find; the networks are reluctant to run it.
Those with a controversial message -- whether it's about abortion, the national debt or atomic power -- are told they can't buy time. That's not more speech. That's silencing the dissident voice. But the First Amendment teaches that the remedy for "unfair" speech is not to censor or regulate it, but to foster more speech.
This month the commission will formally transmit to Congress our "legislative package," a wish list of changes in the laws governing broadcasting and other FCC matters. Again, we have asked Congress to do away with the fairness doctrine.
It is not the first time we have done so. And because the doctrine weakens rather than strengthens the power of broadcasters in the press-government equation, I fear it may not be the last.
But reform is already overdue. The marketplace of ideas is too important to be subject to the blue grease pencil of the censor. As a democratic society we should recognize when we have strayed from the principles of free speech and press. The fairness doctrine is an aberration in our tradition of free expression and should be abolished.