Viewpoint: Fairness Flimflam


"How could anyone be against something called the Fairness Doctrine," says Sen. Ernest Hollings (D–S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. The senator is the leading backer of an attempt in Congress to overturn last summer's decision by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal the doctrine. Broadcasters, said the FCC, would no longer be required to give equal time to all sides of controversial topics.

The senator touts the 38-year-old Fairness Doctrine as a way of letting diverse viewpoints be heard. Actually, it inhibits free speech by discouraging broadcasters from ever taking up controversial issues.

Hollings is so eager to keep broadcasters under the federal fairness thumb that in November he rushed through a bill writing the Fairness Doctrine into law. His tactics included calling a committee meeting on two hours' notice, changing the hearing room three times, and allowing almost no witnesses.

To make the measure especially palatable, Hollings has married his Fairness Doctrine bill to a 2 percent tax on the sale of all commercial radio and television stations. The tax would raise some $300 million a year, and after 1990 the money would go to subsidize public television. Broadcasters who violated the Fairness Doctrine would have to pony up an additional 1 percent fine when their stations were sold—an easy way to deep-six controversial programming at most stations.

Why are Hollings and so many of his colleagues eager to pump life into the Fairness Doctrine? Because they are prime beneficiaries of its constraints on broadcasters. Hollings himself credits the doctrine with providing the media exposure he needed to win his first statewide race.

The doctrine is just one of a host of benefits Congress has written into law to give incumbents more TV and radio air time. These include equal-time laws that ensure that a challenger won't receive more coverage and a requirement that political ads be sold at special low rates.

Even if Hollings is successful in winning passage of his bill and Congress overrides President Reagan's expected veto, a constitutional challenge to the doctrine may find favor with the Supreme Court. In the 1969 Red Lion case, the Court upheld the Fairness Doctrine on the grounds that there was a natural "scarcity" of outlets for diverse viewpoints.

At the time, such a view was plausible. There were only the three big networks. Now there are almost too many to count—even a simple cable-television system has 25 channels. To call the current environment one of "scarcity" is a little like thinking there aren't enough game shows on TV. In a 1984 decision, the high court hinted agreement and said it might be willing to examine the Fairness Doctrine in light of the new technological landscape.

The explosion of the myth of scarcity in broadcasting has led to a new attitude toward the electromagnetic spectrum. Slowly but surely, the government has begun to look at it as a source of revenue. Hollings's bill, while wrongheaded, is a sign of this change. More importantly, the FCC has asked for authority to take public bids on new band rights for satellite and mobile-radio services—six megahertz of the spectrum, or about as much as a single TV channel takes up. This spectrum space is conservatively estimated to be worth $800 million over a two-year period.

Talk of privatizing the airwaves—and thereby eliminating the licensing process from which government control of broadcast content springs—drives supporters of the Fairness Doctrine into a near frenzy. They are a curious coalition, ranging from Phyllis Schlafly and the National Rifle Association on the right to antinuclear activists and Ralph Nader on the left. All have something in common: They are very visible yet still never think they get enough attention from the media. They would get even less if the spectrum were privatized.

But the key special-interest group in support of the status quo is Congress. Bill Monroe, former host of NBC's "Meet the Press," says that what really concerns members of Congress is that broadcasters might not adequately cover them and their causes. Sens. Claiborne Pell (D–R.I.) and David Boren (D–Okla.) propose requiring free air time for the two major parties during the last two months before an election.

But if people don't want to watch political coverage, this can hardly be described as programming "in the public interest," the supposed aim of broadcast regulation. Support for the Fairness Doctrine is support for the government deciding what the public should be watching or listening to. That kind of elitism is unwise in times of calm and downright dangerous in times of crisis. If the Constitution is clear on any point, it is that free speech isn't free if it can be dictated by bureaucrats.

John Fund is an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal.