In a recent article ("The Fairness Doctrine Can Hurt," op-ed, Feb. 25), Mark S. Fowler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, attacked the Fairness Doctrine, which he administers, as "censorship." Fowler should know better.
The Fairness Doctrine simply requires broadcasters to provide opportunities in their overall programming for contrasting viewpoints on issues of public importance. It does not require the FCC to look over the shoulder of broadcast journalists with a blue grease pencil in hand. In fact, one journalist who conducted an in-depth study of the Fairness Doctrine found that the FCC only invoked the doctrine when a broadcaster's overall approach was "so off the wall that no reasonable person could accept it."
The overwhelming majority of broadcasters, as good journalists, need not think twice about the Fairness Doctrine. The only recent case in which a broadcaster was found wanting under the Fairness Doctrine shows that the doctrine promotes free speech. A Syracuse television station ran a series of utility-sponsored ads with the theme that the Nine Mile II nuclear powerplant was a "sound investment." Concerned citizens objected to the 9-to-1 imbalance in coverage of this issue and requested that the station provide more balanced coverage. The station refused, and the citizens' groups took their complaint to the FCC. The FCC did all that it could do: It simply asked the station to provide further coverage. The station did so, and the FCC said, "Okay."
To Fowler, this is censorship. To the Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the Fairness Doctrine, it is a reasonable balancing of the First Amendment rights of listeners and broadcasters. For, in the context of broadcasting, the right of viewers to hear differing viewpoints on essential public issues must take precedence over the desire of broadcasters for unfettered commercial or personal use of their stations.
Television is far more pervasive and influential than other media, and is thus qualitatively different. A vast majority of Americans rely upon television as their primary, if not sole, source of news and information. In an average household, the television set is on for seven or more hours per day, often as background commentary. It is no accident that when the generals sought to take their message to the Filipino people, they took over the government-run television station, not the local newspaper.
Here, fortunately, people with dissident views do not have to take over a television station in order to have contrasting views presented. Under the Fairness Doctrine, a broadcaster may not use his license to favor a political candidate, or allow utilities to bombard the public with ads favoring nuclear power, without allowing opposing views on the air as well.
Far from "chilling" speech or silencing dissident voices, the Fairness Doctrine safeguards free speech to those outside the institutional media. In recent congressional hearings, representatives of groups of the right, center and left all testified that without the Fairness Doctrine their viewpoints would not have been covered.
Broadcasters are allergic to controversy not because of the Fairness Doctrine but for fear of offending advertisers. By providing legal recognition of the ethical obligations of journalists, the Fairness Doctrine insulates journalists from such economic pressures.
Fowler has missed an even more fundamental point. The government licenses broadcasters. Without government licensing, the right to broadcast is worthless. In the days before frequency allocation, anyone could set up a transmitter and broadcast, and chaos prevailed. With government licensing, television stations sell for hundreds of million of dollars. In return for grant of such a valuable privilege, is it too much to ask that broadcasters devote a limited amount of time to coverage of issues and viewpoints of public importance?
It is instructive that no one calls for an end to government licensing, only for an end to the quid pro quo for licensing. In essence, Fowler would allow broadcasters to be egregiously one-sided and unabashedly to pursue pure commercialism. Chief Justice Burger had it right when he observed that a broadcaster "seeks and is granted the free and exclusive use of a limited part of the public domain; when he accepts that franchise, it is burdened by enforceable public obligations."
And so, in the public interest, Congress will once again consign Fowler's proposal to repeal the Fairness Doctrine to the ash heap.