Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D–S.C.) doesn't actually read and approve Dan Rather's news copy each night. But as long as he and his confreres hold Rather's boss (and the other two TV networks) in a financial chokehold, such careful monitoring is not necessary.
Bills already being discussed in Congress could affect billions of dollars in revenues for the networks and their affiliates. The networks might be allowed to begin sharing in profits generated by reruns, for example, and might be restricted from selling "too much" commercial time on children's shows. The FCC may loosen rules that prevent broadcasters from acquiring other stations or newspapers, and the agency wants to make it easier for broadcasters to keep their licenses.
These are just a few of the changes under active consideration, and in the frenzy of regulation, the politicians in Congress have not forgotten their own interests. Several are talking about reviving the Fairness Doctrine (which discourages stations from giving air time to political candidates, thus helping preserve the status quo for incumbents). For a long time candidates have had the statutory right to buy commercial time for campaign ads at stations' lowest possible rates. This year there was talk of "clarifying" this rule so that they could buy nonpreemptible time at preemptible rates, which are lower—a shameless effort to tax broadcasters to pay for political campaigns.
Much broadcast regulation would, if applied to print media, violate constitutional protection of free speech. But the electronic media get second-class status, based upon wrong or technologically outdated notions.
One such notion is that the few networks have a monopoly. But in addition to many newspapers and other information outlets, scads of cable and satellite channels are available today for people who have a message but cannot get the networks' attention.
The other common justification for regulation is that the broadcast spectrum is finite (printing presses, presumably, are infinite). Government must control access to the airwaves to ensure that the public interest is served…said the fox who wanted to guard the chicken coop.
Facing a complex scheme of regulatory punishments and rewards subject to change at any moment, broadcasters have an incentive to bootlick the regulators, which is intolerable in a society that respects freedom of speech. This is not to disparage broadcast journalists, but we would never allow a judge to decide a case if one of the parties had direct control over the judge's personal fortune—not because we distrust judges but because of the inherent weaknesses of human nature. Neither can we expect broadcast journalists to critique honestly the policies and programs of people who hold their financial statements hostage.
At best, network newspeople will become timid spokesmodels. At worst, members of Congress will go around issuing direct orders to the networks. And it does happen. With their boy Dukakis trailing in the polls and hoping the televised debates would boost his standing, some Democrat politicos were upset with NBC's decision to air the Olympics instead. Rep. John D. Dingell (D–Mich.) and Senator Hollings, who head the House and Senate committees that oversee telecommunications issues, let it be known to NBC that they would be "disappointed" if the network "abused its public trust" by not airing the debate. The network capitulated, thereby making a donation, so to speak, of $8 million in lost advertising revenue to the Dukakis campaign.
It's not clear that NBC helped Dukakis by allowing him to underwhelm viewers on three channels instead of two, but Dingell and Hollings certainly helped entrench the two major parties at the expense of all third-party candidates who were cordially not invited to the debates. NBC News Executive Vice-president Tim Russert, trying to hide the puppet strings, announced that his company made its decision on principle. About the persuasion from Democratic bigwigs, he said (perhaps without choosing his words too wisely), "I wouldn't put too much emphasis on those calls. They call us on everything." They do, huh?
FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick, a Republican, has done a good job (relatively speaking) of defending broadcasters' freedom, with admirable help from the other two commissioners, both Democrats. He might have accomplished more if the Senate had not refused to confirm Reagan's two appointees to the five-member commission. But appointing commissioners who respect the right of free speech is not the answer. Congress can taketh away what the FCC giveth. Broadcasters will not be free from the threat of Pavlovian conditioning by Congress until the Supreme Court recognizes their right to the same First Amendment protection afforded print journalists.
Not long ago, a man walked onto the set of a local news show in Los Angeles in the middle of a broadcast. He pointed a gun at one of the newscasters and told him what to read. When I first heard about it, I thought it might be another member of Congress getting into broadcast regulation. But of course that's ridiculous. Congress has more subtle and powerful techniques.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "It's All Public TV".