The FCC voted today to allow a single entity to own a newspaper as well as a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market under certain conditions, and some people seem truly alarmed.
Democratic FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein worried that the FCC “has never attempted such a brazen act of defiance against Congress. Like the Titanic, we are steaming at full speed despite repeated warnings of danger ahead. It might yet sink. We should have slowed down rather than put everything at risk,” according to Broadcasting & Cable.
Many people were similarly horrified in 1987 when the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air contrasting viewpoints on “vitally important controversial issues of interest in the community.”
Former FCC chairman Dennis Patrick recalled the bitter controversy, questionable motives and a demonstrably successful outcome resulting from the repeal during a wonderful lecture this past summer at an event sponsored by the George Mason University School of Law.
Patrick recalled how the FCC tried to duck the issue for years because it was so controversial, but the courts forced it to do something. What he and his fellow commissioners wanted (or thought they needed) to do wasn’t popular on Capitol Hill.
Both houses of Congress had voted to codify the Fairness Doctrine in June 1987. A veto by President Reagan put the issue back on our plate, but the congressional vote made it clear that a majority in congress with broad support in both parties wanted the Fairness Doctrine to remain the law….
[On Aug. 4] the commission found the Doctrine unconstitutional and inconsistent with the public interest….
On August 5 all hell broke loose. House Commerce Chairman John Dingell held a press conference to call us all “lickspittles.” Senate Commerce Chairman Ernest Hollings called us “wrongheaded, misguided and illogical.”
And then it got nasty.
Oversight hearings were held. Investigations were conducted. Motives and processes were questioned.
He also commented on why there are members of both parties who wanted to regulate the media.
… the most distressing discussions I had were with those who stated quite clearly that they supported the Fairness Doctrine because it gave them a federal club with which to discourage broadcasters from airing perspectives they found politically offensive.
In this context, I had conservatives complain what the liberal networks might do, and liberals recoil at the thought of unconstrained media conglomerates.
Those discussions were not about diversity, or access, or robust debate. It was about using the federal government to control speech…….just what, as I recall, the founding fathers feared.
Also, Patrick pointed to the fact that it became clear fairly quickly that repealing the Fairness Doctrine was a huge success.
In an exhaustive study published in the Journal of Legal Studies in 1997, Drs. Tom Hazlett and David Sosa documented a dramatic increase in informational programming on radio after the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine.
Most impressively, the percentage of AM stations programming news, talk and public affairs jumped from just over 7% in 1987 to over 27% in 1995. To put that in perspective, in 1975 there were no AM stations in America with a news/talk format. In 1995 there were 854.
Of course, the fact that the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine spurred an abundance of programming aimed squarely at our most important and controversial issues is no longer seriously debated.
The goal today is to improve the quantity and quality of local news gathering. There’s a dearth of local news reporting in some communities because current regulation makes it uneconomical. Relaxing the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restriction should improve the situation by allowing media outlets to pool their resources.
The FCC ought to eliminate all media ownership restrictions now that that the traditional “scarcity rationale” (i.e., the limited availability of broadcast frequencies) has completely eroded due to the availability of digital compression technology as well as competition from direct broadcast satellites, cable operators, telephone companies, wireless providers and unaffiliated Internet-based content providers such as iTunes, YouTube and opinionated bloggers.
The new rule, which primarily affects newspapers, radio stations and smaller TV stations in the nation’s 20 largest cities, is at least a positive start.