Unchain the Electronic Media!

A well-known broadcast journalist charges the Federal Communications Commission with subverting the First Amendment.

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I take the First Amendment seriously. Although, at my present mellow age, I get into many fewer heated arguments than I did two or three decades ago, a good First Amendment fuss can still spur me to outrage. In a way it's a personal comfort to realize that, while so many powers and reflexes are diminishing, the capacity for outrage can be depended on for certain occasions.

I am indignant that Myron Farber of the New York Times had to go to jail to protect his sources. But I'm grateful that he was willing to go to jail for the right of all of us to seek information from frightened or nervous sources and guarantee them confidentiality. And I think over a period of years, because of the courage of individual journalists like Myron Farber, we will win this campaign for press freedom that means press freedom.

I'm appalled that federal courts say it's all right for the government to go to the telephone company and check on the phone calls of a news organization without that organization even knowing the check is being made. Do you know what that is? That is the thinking of mentally obsolescent judges who are unable to relate sound old constitutional principles to new technology. Some of them, for example, harbor a visceral hostility toward television and cannot accept it as performing a vital First Amendment function. And some of them don't understand telephone records, existing physically 10 or 20 miles from one's home or office, as related to privacy and to prohibitions against unreasonable search.

I find it incredible that five justices of the Supreme Court would sanction the unannounced, wholesale search of a newsroom as in the Stanford Daily case. What a generous invitation for the harassment of journalists by a hostile or crooked city hall.

INDEPENDENCE STIFLED

The present apparatus of broadcast regulation cheats the broadcast journalist of the independence promised by the First Amendment and so cheats the American people of the vigor and diversity they should expect from all of our nation's media. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think of the cumbersome governmental mechanisms electronic journalists are grappling with:

• presidential appointees reviewing the licenses of American news media on constantly shifting grounds;

• ascertainment procedures that set up bureaucratic formulas for official monitoring of media responsibility, formulas whose chief effect is to institutionalize the broadcaster's vulnerability to any pressure group that can scrape up 35 members.

• noble-sounding fairness and equal-time requirements that provide for government supervision of editorial decisions, penalize journalism that tackles controversial subjects, and discourage political debates.

These are stifling mechanisms. They ought to be scrapped in favor of granting electronic media licenses on the sole condition that stations adhere to assigned frequencies. And there are signs that, gradually, some political leaders, judges, lawyers, academics, students, and newspaper people are beginning to understand these arguments, to realize that the present system of broadcast regulation is subversive of the whole First Amendment structure. There is hope, I think, over the next couple of decades, for movement toward electronic media free of government control.

These remarks are the mere prelude to a rather heavy musical number that could be described as my First Amendment Symphony, a work scored for orchestra and cannon. But instead of launching into the first movement, let alone the second and third, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the unfulfilled nature of broadcast news at this moment roughly half a century into radio and a quarter of a century into television.

WHAT THE NEWS NEEDS NOW

It seems to me that we are doing pretty well in developing the potential of the broadcast media as vehicles of reporting, vehicles of straight news. In the early days of both radio and television there was, at first, the brief newscast. The newscaster, whether announcer or journalist, was an all-purpose character who provided news, sports, weather, obituaries, and a kicker for dessert. Then we began developing, one by one over a period of years, every specialization offered by the newspapers: the sports reporter, the weather reporter, and more recently, political reporters, science specialists, and business or economics specialists.

There was a time, back in the '50s, when newspapermen could, and did, complain that print reporters asked better questions than television reporters. But, except for the technical restraints, such as that of brevity, we don't need to apologize any more for the quality of electronic journalism. It's as good, by and large, as what you see in print—often better.

There is one area, however, where the newspapers, particularly the good ones, are still superior to radio and television. That is in the quality and quantity of opinion offered by American papers: editorial opinion, individual opinion—from columnists—and opinion from plain people in letters to the editor. There are some historical reasons that probably explain the difference, but I don't think there's any reason why, in the long run, broadcasting should not become just as rich a source of diverse opinion as the nation's newspapers and magazines. Democracy needs not only the meat and potatoes of fact and information but the vitamins and minerals of argument and debate.

Radio, in fact, was a rich and nationally important source of vigorous opinion back in the '40s. Many people may remember, as I do, Elmer Davis, Raymond Gram Swing, Boake Carter, and H.V. Kaltenborn.

VOICES OF CONVICTION

We have a sneering term today that is almost antihuman in its implications—"talking head," a phrase suggesting that a person saying something on camera cannot be interesting by comparison with a fire in Omaha. This, of course, is nicely refuted by the prosperous existence of such folk as Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Barbara Walters, talking heads every one of them. Back in the '40s, Davis, Swing, Carter, Kaltenborn, and the others were not even talking heads—they were mere voices. But they were voices of knowledge, voices of conviction, voices gifted with grace of expression and marvelous individuality. We got to know and respect those people, and they had an impact on this country.

Thirty years later they are long gone, and they have not been replaced by a new generation of similar presence and authenticity. There is, of course, a school of thought that says, well, the fact that serious commentary is dying out proves that it should die out, that it doesn't work, that talking heads are not good television. I wonder.

I wonder if individual opinion on the air, coming from serious and forceful people, crafted on a full-time basis, is dying because people don't want it or because we're killing it. I don't say this in condemnation of anyone. If the commentator, the journalist with an opinion to offer, is an endangered species, some of the causes may be environmental.

The very existence of the FCC, with its oddly antidemocratic compulsion to sanitize the air waves of the unequal, the unfair, and the impure—the very existence of this federal control commission discourages the idea of assigning keen, thoughtful people to say what they want to say. Unless, of course, you do it on the twin-pack basis, Shana Alexander and Jack Kilpatrick, so they can neutralize each other and everyone is reassured by the smell of Lysol.

There are also the pressures of time. News executives who are conscious of good stories getting crowded out of newscasts may have understandable doubts about making room for individual opinion.

But I wonder if the basic problem isn't a mind set we've fallen into, as a result of all these factors, that says commentary is out of date, passé. The difficulties in dealing with opinion may have soured us, mistakenly, on the product itself. We may have just plain forgotten how good a free-speaking individual can be on the air. The fact is, we haven't really experienced many of them in recent years. And of those we have, I wonder if they haven't, inevitably, been toning down their output, writing with kid gloves on, conscious of their own industry's nervousness over the governmental smog.

If we got over our present timidity about commentary and decided to tackle the problems involved, which are real problems, we might discover that genuinely talented individuals dealing in opinion, working full-time at it and free to say whatever they wanted, could make a difference between one newscast and another.

The American columnist, syndicated or local, provides a remarkable amount of vigor and character to the newspaper he or she appears in. People talk about what the columnists are saying. There is no reason why personal journalists shouldn't do the same for local or national newscasts, providing the kind of individuality that comes from the combination of a sharp mind and a strong personality, the kind of individuality that gives one news program a competitive edge over another.

RESPONSIBLE REBUTTAL

If we move from individual opinion to editorial opinion, the state of broadcasting is not any more reassuring. Plenty of broadcast editorials are going on the air. But are they saying anything? I don't want to offer any invidious comparisons here with newspapers because, God knows, most newspapers are editorially pusillanimous enough to serve the need for prudence, what with advertisers, public officials, and little old ladies in jogging shoes. But while television stations do an awful lot of thundering against potholes in the street, the curse of heroin, and wife beating when carried to excess, they then turn around and invite equal-time replies from responsible spokesmen.

This indignity of begging for rebuttals, of course, is not self-inflicted; it arrives courtesy of the FCC, which holds that broadcast stations don't have the right to offer opinion on the same this-is-it basis we're accustomed to from newspapers. The whole thing, filtered through the bifocals of FCC-conscious station editorial committees, winds up with broadcasters saying editorially: "…and, for those reasons, this station is totally opposed to shoplifting. We welcome replies from responsible spokesmen." Some day a responsible shoplifter is going to show up and win the whole argument.

I remember once, going back to New Orleans 20 or so years ago, when our station had delivered itself of an editorial against lynching. In all fairness, it was not all that noncontroversial. We got more than one angry phone call from people who favored lynching. And I have to say that an angry phone call from someone who favors lynching makes you think twice. But we decided that on this occasion we would not invite replies from responsible spokesmen. And for some reason or other the pro-lynching crowd did not challenge the station's license.

But the fact is, broadcasters still seem to be squeamish about pursuing forceful editorial policies. Newspapers are important to local political campaigns partly because they endorse candidates. Most broadcasters stay away from endorsements. Here again the FCC can claim some credit because of its cumbersome rules. But one suspects some broadcasters are happy to use those rules as an excuse to avoid controversy. There are some notable exceptions but, in general, the broadcast editorialist comes across as gravely voicing bland positions on easy issues.

TELEVISION DIALOGUE

In yet another area of opinion, we cannot claim direct harassment or bureaucratic discouragement by government. That is the area of letting the broadcast audience get in its two cents' worth, the business of finding some way for the audience to speak, to criticize us and talk back to us as in the letters-to-the-editor section of almost every American newspaper. This, also, is an area of opinion—the opinion, in this case, of people who are important to us, those who are listening to radio and watching television but who may well not agree with some of what they're hearing and seeing.

There are very few respectable American publications that don't give their audiences a chance to talk back, but we in broadcasting are very ungenerous in this particular democratic practice. The chief deterrent is a lack of interest and an assumption that audience feedback won't make for dynamic or profitable programming. We're neglecting the possibilities. In most cases we're not really testing our assumptions that the voice of the citizen cannot be made to work as lively and effective programming.

At the same time, there are hopeful signs of a slowly awakening interest among broadcasters in hearing from the audience, not just by phone and postcard, but publicly, on the air. Here and there stations and networks are engaged in efforts to work out some viable formats, to put some production values into making those vital people in the audience come alive on the air.

"Sixty Minutes" and "Meet the Press" are carrying brief letter segments. But the really valid way to treat audience reaction is to take it seriously and to give a viewer with something to say the same production values as a news figure, a mayor, a congressman, or a governor—in other words, a camera crew and an on-the-scene interviewer. That's what CBS has been experimenting with in its new series called "Your Turn." I don't know whether this kind of thing can be commercially viable, but I recall the time when nobody believed television news itself would ever operate in the black. And I do know that completing the dialogue, bringing in some sampling of audience opinion, is necessary to the whole concept of a robust range of opinion available on the air.

Despite the serious regulatory problems, I think the fears of broadcasters about opinion on the air are not all based on reality. We may also not fully realize how much strength can be added to broadcast journalism by tougher editorials, based on professional research, writing, and on-air delivery; by individuals of integrity free to speak their own minds in carefully wrought commentaries; and by handsomely produced programs focused on some of those surprising people who are in the audience.

I believe broadcasters who go in the direction of bolder opinion—and who do it well—will reap dividends of competitive advantage and enhanced journalistic reputation. And beyond doubt they will strengthen our contribution to the remarkable democratic process that makes this country go.

Bill Monroe is executive producer of NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." This article is adapted from his remarks before the Radio-Television News Directors Association upon his receipt of the Paul White Memorial Award.

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