Static Interference


FCC: The Ups and Downs of Radio-TV Regulation, by William B. Ray, Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 200 pages, $24.95

William B. Ray, a careerist from the innards of the Federal Communications Commission, has stepped out of the bureaucratic closet and onto the public stage with FCC: The Ups and Downs of Radio-TV Regulation. His story is simple and informative: TV and radio programs have often broadcast wildly inaccurate news and/or information—not to mention irresistibly titillating entertainment, only to be inadequately policed by the truth monitors at the FCC.

In this litany of broadcast horror stories the feds regularly bark, whine—and finally turn tail and run, with scarcely a faint whimper. Behind its "Don't-you-ever-pull-that-stunt-again" bravado, the FCC has repeatedly chosen not to yank licenses from troublesome users of the "public airwaves." And this bureaucratic leniency is the source of Mr. Ray's indignation.

Regulation of broadcasting has been a huge failure, he sees. And we need much more of it, he concludes.

Happily, this policy confusion does not render the volume's examples useless. Indeed, the strength of the book is its litany of famous instances of bad reporting coupled with insider summaries of the regulatory reactions. For example, when the Peabody Award–winning CBS documentary "Hunger in America" aired in 1969, it opened with the distressing scene of a doctor trying (vainly) to save the life of "an emaciated black infant." The announcer asserted: "Hunger is always easy to recognize when it looks like this. This baby is dying of starvation."

Well, that's easy for CBS to say. Yet the infant was not starving—it had been born prematurely due to a fall by its pregnant mother. And its parents were not poor, but "moderately well-to-do." CBS did not check the child's birth certificate, nor did it interview the doctor in attendance or any hospital personnel, despite the fact that the local San Antonio newspaper had already printed a story detailing the truth of the tragedy. The only accurate points were that the baby was black and that it was dying. (One can hear the CBS newsroom even now: "Hank, can you send over a dead black kid? Gee, thanks—and get 'im over here for the 6 o'clock, will ya?") It was a perfectly cynical piece of broadcast "reporting."

Ray also describes the news twisting of KMPC, a Los Angeles radio station, in the late 1940s. Owned by a big-bucks conservative, G.A. Richards, the station simply fired on-air talent who refused to slam Democrats while puffing up Republicans, to refer to General MacArthur in strictly respectful tones, to call President Truman a "pipsqueak," and to "make no unfavorable mention of the Ku Klux Klan."

Time and again such broadcast sleaze is brought before the Federal Communications Commission, the licensor guided by "public convenience, interest, and necessity." And, lo and behold, no heads are chopped. Ray is exasperated. While "news faking and distortion by broadcast licensees…are violations of the public interest standard…the FCC has done little or nothing." CBS was investigated as a result of the "Hunger" episode, but the network skipped out due to the difficulty in separating "sloppy journalism" from outright fabrication—and (this really frosts Ray) because it was not clear the corporate bigwigs had directly ordered the sensationalistic untruth.

In the KMPC case, a very long hearing outlived the first administrative law judge and then owner Richards himself. After his widow copped a plea, agreeing not to jolt the "public interest" again, the FCC simply dropped the case as moot.

Ray's beef is that the agency is run by, as musclemen Hans and Franz would testify, nothing but a bunch of "gerlee mahn" commissioners; Ray's prescription for them would be to "Pump—you up." It is fascinating to see the moral underpinnings of a bureaucrat's bureaucrat. Ray's heroes are (1) the dissenting commissioners who decry regulatory inaction, and (2) agency staffers who persevere despite the wimpish leadership from above. Indeed, he stands in awe of the "brilliant" former FCC counsel, Henry Geller, who performed miracles through his ability to "rationalize irrational ruling[s]."

Similarly, another loyal staffer much admired by Ray describes his instructions from the commission: "They told us who is to get the license, but when I asked what the reasons were, Commissioner Lee just said, 'Lonnie, you'll think of some.'" When the underlings went back to their typewriters to ingeniously crank out the evil justifications like good little Germans, they apparently qualified for Heroic Achievement Awards from the Bureaucrats' Club. What a value structure with which to entrust definition of the "public interest"!

Ray's tunnel vision (PG-13 in each eye) yields a colorful indictment of private mischief and cowardly regulation, without so much as a wink toward global truths. But read the book, Mr. Ray. Your subtitles—"FDR Takes Care of His Friend Elzey," "How Lyndon Johnson Got Rich," "The Eisenhower Gang Hands Out the Plums"—represent the public-interest standard made operational. Allowing bureaucrats and the politicians they serve to snatch away licenses from those whose broadcasts tread too far from the straight and narrow is a chilling way for the electronic press to do business.

It is entirely appropriate that while Ray is politically conservative in his distaste for CBS-style liberalism, his most vile attacks are reserved for Reagan-era deregulators on the commission. This philosophical ambivalence nicely parallels the law: The two prevailing precedents granting the government the right to regulate the content of broadcast speech, Red Lion (1969) and Pacifica (1977), involved, respectively, a rightwing Christian radio station airing the views of the Rev. Billy James Hargis and a leftish, counterculture radio broadcast of George Carlin's "seven dirty words." True to their task, regulators in the "public interest" chase down minority perspectives wherever they may lurk.

Ray's book contains some spicy vignettes of airwave entrepreneurship. I was tremendously impressed, for example, by the scam wherein a radio minister broadcasts a threat to air "certain damaging information against a prominent married man" unless a $100 contribution was made with Godspeed. The public service (well, he could have just revealed the unfortunate news, you know) netted a tidy sum from many of the male faithful.

Yet Ray's policy analysis is utterly devoid of redeeming social value. Examples of every kind of hustle, blasphemy, mendacity; or fabrication can be found in far greater numbers in the print media. But we find much more journalistic excellence there as well. Individuals are able to exercise their sacred First Amendment rights to select the news and entertainment sources they wish to endure. The politics of defining the "public interest"—so crucial to the institution under study, and so rudely described in this book—is simply swept away by the aseptic assertion that, wherever untruths live, good regulation is the solution.

Such a purely bureaucratic perspective is startling at this late date. (Note to serious students: This book pops out of a scholarly vacuum. Such outstanding thinkers on broadcast regulation as Ithiel de Sola Pool, Lucas Powe, Matthew Spitzer, Robert Crandall, Bruce Owen, and Ronald Coase go unmentioned. It is a practitioner's tome—with an oddly impractical quality.) The author falls repeatedly into deep, dark wells with statements unsupportable on their face.

Take this one: While radio and TV stations should lose their licenses when caught with their accuracy ratings down, Ray posits that the FCC "has no licensing power over newswriters, commentators, or producers and it should not have such power." This, he allows, "would turn Uncle Sam into Big Brother." Even pensioned employees of the federal government ought to be able to see the lunacy in a regulatory scheme that says that, of two identical broadcasts, one is legal because it is the reporter's true opinion, while the other is not because it merely reflects the owner's personal bias. Imagine a First Amendment (not even important enough to merit an entry in this book's subject index) that protected editors and writers from sanctions but gave the state authority to toss publishers in the slammer. There's your free speech, pal.

And speaking of free speech, Mr. Ray, you're quite lucky for it. If this little volume had had to hurdle the rigorous licensing procedure of the HCC (Hazlett Communications Commission) for scholarship in the "public interest," you'd find yourself in quite a regulatory dilemma. You've made many controversial statements here, sir. You fail to present a balanced perspective. Your position could be found quite dangerous to the public weal. Shall we schedule a full prepublication hearing for sometime in mid-'93?

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.