Committed to the First Amendment
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/25/2003 8:00:00 PM
Government and a Free Press
It is something of an irony that the regulators championing diversity of viewpoints as a vital public interest—FCC Democrats Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps for two—are the same ones who have been flexing their content-control muscles on indecency enforcement. The result of such activism is the chilling of diverse viewpoints. Just ask Sarah Jones or Eminem.
In a speech last week on media ownership, Adelstein continued down the same tortured path. He suggested that acknowledging the reality of increased competition to broadcasting from satellite, cable and the Internet would be a bad thing because it threatens the "special status" that justifies continued government oversight. He has it exactly backwards. Acknowledging such competition is an opportunity to bring the industry closer to the model of a free press that best squares it with fundamental constitutional protections.
Thomas Jefferson said he would rather have a free press and no government than a government and no free press. But Jefferson and company figured out a way to have both; that lofty goal should always inform the debate over media regulation.
The conundrum has always been that broadcasting is different. While, as a technical matter, it requires regulation on a spectrum-management level, it is also home to our most ubiquitous and popular press, which should be insulated from government controls. Adelstein and others argue that this "special" status justifies closer government scrutiny; we argue that it instead demands that every effort be made to free it from as much government scrutiny as possible. Not "consequences be damned," but "consequences be recognized as the price of that liberty."
When the FCC takes an activist approach to indecency enforcement, it only demonstrates the importance of putting as much distance between the electronic press and five unelected bureaucrats as possible. We are not comforted by the notion that ownership rules are just structural regulations. They are de facto content regulations. If the government can control what a company can buy and own, it can control to some extent what the company can say.
With the June 2 deadline for FCC action almost upon us, the clamor from dereg opponents has grown deafening. Some of their arguments even sound persuasive if we grant the Adelstein view that a government leash on broadcasting, perhaps to lead it away from some of its more "crass" viewpoints, is in the public interest. We don't.
Jefferson had it right.
A couple of former FCC chairmen are helping to make program-content calls, and we are all for it. The key is "former." Newton Minow and Bill Kennard are involved in a new group, Common Sense Media, that has launched a Web site (www.commonsensemedia.org) to review TV shows, videogames and a host of other media for sexual and violent material (see story, page 6). We may or may not agree with them, but the more voices giving us guidance on what to watch, the better, so long as they are not on the government payroll.
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