This section of the law had never been invoked before. When it was invoked, it was against a large and growing minority. South Africa? No.
The law had to be stretched and twisted by a government functionary to apply to the case at hand. The Soviet Union? No.
The law was used to clamp down on a media organ that the government claimed had grown too powerful. A South American military dictatorship? No.
Unfortunately, we're talking about the United States and a little-remarked case that shows how inimical to the liberty of a free people is the government's power to regulate broadcasting.
In January, an administrative law judge at the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the broadcasting licenses of 13 Spanish-language stations around the country could not be renewed. Judge John H. Conlin decided that the stations should lose their licenses because they are illegally controlled and influenced by Emilio Azcarraga, a Mexican "media baron." What's illegal about it? Well, here's where the stretching and twisting comes in.
Federal law limits foreign ownership of domestic TV and radio stations to 20 percent. Conlin admitted in his ruling that Azcarraga has not bumped up against that limit. But his honor didn't like the situation anyway. "The groundwork has been laid," Judge Conlin charged, "for an enterprise that would be receptive to, and indeed, dependent on influence and direction from non-U.S. citizens and foreign corporations."
The heart of the issue here is not the precise determination of whether the 13 stations are or are not "too controlled" by a Mexican national who has made a success of broadcasting ownership in his own country and then in ours. Azcarraga also controls the Spanish International Network, which supplies programming to those and a host of other stations, much as the major US networks supply programming to their affiliates across the country. SIN reaches some 80 percent of the nation's Latino community. This supposedly alarming situation is also discussed in the judge's ruling. So it's pretty clear that it's this whole ball of wax that's sticking in the FCC's craw, and not 20 percent ownership of particular stations.
Now Congress made the law, of course. For a people who so jealously guard freedom of the print media, we've been remarkably tolerant of government meddling with the broadcast media. However much the federal government has loosened its grip on broadcasting—and it has done a great deal in the last few years—the basic premise remains: the government must regulate broadcasting. And that inevitably means that government has the power to control what comes out of our TVs and radios.
The FCC, and others, will protest that this case is simply a matter of ownership, not of content. An FCC lawyer questioned about the ruling said that the stations were given plenty of opportunity to "reorganize" to avoid the problem. But if it's not content they're worried about, why care about the nationality of the ownership? Why the 20 percent rule in the first place if there's not some lurking suspicion of what "they" might be broadcasting to gullible citizens if "they" gain too much control?
In fact, in the wake of the ruling a lot of stations are bound to scramble to adjust their programming to meet the apparent wishes of the FCC. And that's the insidious result of allowing the government to have say-so over broadcasting. That's why Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) is worried that the ruling could mean "a new Anglicized era in Spanish broadcasting" and observes pointedly that the FCC's action calls into question the issue of "control of this very important medium in the United States." Indeed. Perhaps he can get the rest of the Congress to consider that the people should be trusted with their liberty.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "What Do the Federales Fear?".