I cant hear you

We noted recently-and with some surprise-that, last October, the Society of Professional Journalists' awards committee dropped the broadcast editorials category from its national Sigma Delta Chi awards for excellence in journalism. Who can blame them? A year earlier, the winner in that category had been culled from an exhaustive submission list of three.

Thanks in large part to the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters never developed the kind of vigorous ed/op-ed interplay that print did. Before being finally struck down in 1987, that doctrine had put an affirmative obligation on any broadcaster who aired controversial opinions to provide airtime for opposing viewpoints. Its political-editorializing corollary held that stations that editorialized about candidates had to actively seek out the opposing candidates, inform them an editorial had aired, give them a transcript or tape of the piece, and offer them time for rebuttal. What, no flaming hoop to jump through?

This was a rule that forced action at the threat of license revocation. As a result, broadcasters who did editorialize often confined themselves to hardly controversial topics like decrying potholes and saluting Boy Scouts, with many eventually tiring of going through the motions. Combine the long history of the Fairness Doctrine with the fact that stations are otherwise beholden to the FCC for their licenses, and it comes as no shock that broadcasters are holding their tongues rather than risking offending anybody.

We wish the end of the doctrine had meant the flourishing of broadcast editorials, but it didn't. With the proliferation of megamedia groups whose mandate is to make profits, not controversial points, creating a culture of vigorous editorial debate was at the top of nobody's to-do list, particularly when controversy could offend the government types who control how big and profitable you can be.