Guest Commentary: Minow and the First Amendment

Former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler weighs in on the ‘Vast Wasteland’

Both [FCC] Chairmans [Newton] Minow and [Julius] Genachowski
are dedicated public servants. I admire much
of what each of them has accomplished. But I’ve a slight
disagreement with their view that there is a role for government
influence or control over broadcast television
and radio content to protect the public from what they
call a “vast wasteland.” Wasteland? Really?

If one looks around for even a few moments, it’s indisputable
that we are voice, content, entertainment and
opinion rich—whether from cable, broadcast, Internet
or other means of audio and video distribution. The
two chairmen’s’ quarrel is really about a lack of “good”
programming, “quality” programming, as they think of it.
And so, whether it’s the chairman’s bully pulpit, regulation
by raised eyebrow, fastening conditions on the sale
of broadcast companies trapped in a regulatory approval
vise or outright rules and policies, the goal is to encourage
more “Dudley Do-Good” programming.

Never mind that many believe today’s significantly
deregulated broadcasters present television programs
which are a cut above movies, and that today’s radio is
far more interesting and informative than the three or
four heavily regulated national networks of the past.

How would the government determine what “good”
and “quality” programming is? Who would make that
judgment? Why don’t the chairmen advocate the same
regimen for all media that impact people, including
books, movies and newspapers? And most importantly,
how does their approach square with the clear language
of the First Amendment?

One need only consider the elimination of the Fairness
Doctrine in 1987. In the past 24 years, it’s hard to think of a
single significant issue that has not been covered fully by
broadcast radio and television. Little could we imagine in
1987 how ditching the doctrine would cause radio and television
to flourish with many new voices—some balanced,
moderate and reasoned, others shrill, radical or highly
ideological. And folks didn’t need politicians or government
censors to assure balance and fairness; they were smart
enough to make reasoned judgments on their own.

The truth is that the marketplace system, although not
perfect, has served the American public interest consistently
and powerfully over the years. Thus, the public’s
interest defines the public interest —not the bureaucrats.

This enlightened view of broadcast regulation best
serves and preserves a free people. It’s hardly radical.
It’s the print model, chairmen!