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The New Fairness Doctrine

Committed to the First Amendment 11/09/2003 07:00:00 PM Eastern

CBS has a great tradition of editorial independence, some of it celebrated during the network's 75th anniversary gala in New York. Last week, Les Moonves, Mel Karmazin and Sumner Redstone betrayed that tradition.

Moonves spelled out the network's new "fairness doctrine" in a speech at Yale defending his network's yanking of the controversial miniseries on the Reagan presidency.

According to a story in New Haven Register, Moonves told his audience, "As a broadcast network, we feel [CBS is a] public trust. We have a news division. We have to be fair in what we show, and a pay-cable network can be a little more biased in what they show. It can be an opinion piece. We can't do that."

Since when? If miniseries can't arrange its facts in a certain direction, throw in some dramatic license, serve it up during the sweeps and take some heat while it collects the HUTs, it's the first we've heard of it. If broadcasters truly believe they can't air opinions for fear of offending Washington, they might as well raise a white flag now and petition for common-carrier status.

The network's decision to cut and run when faced with Republican criticism rivals Kentucky's Mammoth cavern as the nation's biggest cave. Citing bias—something it had apparently failed to notice until it was pointed out by angry Reagan defenders—and denying that it was bowing to political pressure, CBS brass offered this up. "A free broadcast network, available to all over the public airwaves, has different standards than media the public must pay to view."

Here's our translation: Because broadcast content is subject to greater government regulation and scrutiny, we'd better do what we're told by the D.C. powers that be—in this case, the Republican National Committee—if we want to be able to buy more stations.

The public's overarching interest as regards its most powerful communications and information media is that they be free from government content control. So long as broadcasters operate without full First Amendment freedom, they are not operating in the public interest but rather in the political interest of whoever is carrying the biggest stick in Washington.

We have always been worried that the government might reinstate some form of fairness doctrine. Now we're starting to worry that broadcasters may beat them to the punch. The irony is that President Reagan, a former broadcaster, was a vigorous opponent of government meddling in broadcast content. His administration did more to free broadcasters from government influence than any before or since. "The nation can better tolerate some limited number of journalistic abuses than government oversight of the journalistic process," Reagan told us in 1987, talking of his historic veto of a bill that would have codified the fairness doctrine.

Too bad he's not around to veto the Moonves doctrine.

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