When E. (F.) Hollings Talks…
Ernest (Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.), the senior senator on the Commerce Committee and a central figure on the communications regulation landscape for the better part of four decades, said last week he would retire next year. Calling him a friend to free, local broadcasting, NAB President Eddie Fritts said he was saddened by the news. Frankly, our feelings are mixed. Like Fritts, we will miss Hollings, as will anyone with an appreciation of the Southern accent that mellows and attenuates with age. Nobody is better than Hollings at the kind of courtly speech that makes a stinging rebuke read like a black-tie dinner invitation in the next day's Congressional Record.
Fritts and broadcasters certainly need all the friends they can get in the current climate. But congressional friendships frequently come with a price tag. The paternal and avuncular Hollings has a penchant for wanting to parent the medium, telling it what to put on and when. We have always counseled that content regulation is an untenable price to pay for the loosening of structural regulations, but with friends like Hollings, broadcasters have been tempted to see it as, instead, an acceptable cost of doing business.
Hollings' double-edged sword was on prominent display back in 1994, when he was pushing a broadcaster-friendly Communications Act rewrite. At the same time, he was pushing for more government control over broadcast speech, eventually passing in committee a bill that would have banned violent programming during certain times and funded a government-issue report card (effectively a hit list) of violent programs and their advertisers. Cooler heads prevailed, but with Hollings' support for a deregulatory review of the act and his opposition to spectrum fees crucial to broadcasters, there was less opposition to his content proposals than was healthy for the industry's First Amendment status (See: V-Chip). Broadcasters' best friends remain those who share an abiding respect for freedom of the press.
A group of First Amendment fans, including several station groups, People for the American Way, and attorney Robert Corn-Revere, have asked the FCC to open a notice of proposed inquiry on its indecency rules. The group argues that the FCC is taking far too much liberty with the limited content regulation powers it was granted in the Pacifica case. Specifically, the FCC has used its condemnation of the particularly offensive speech on Infinity's WKRK-FM Detroit as a springboard to more active indecency enforcement, including threatening other broadcasters with license revocation for their own potential transgressions. Some commissioners feel even that isn't enough. One of them is Michael Copps. Although we disagree with the direction he is moving, we agree on at least one thing: Indecency decisions should come from the top, since they become the precedent going forward given the built-in vagueness of the standard.
We also agree with Corn-Revere that it is time to look at the indecency rules in light of today's marketplace, and that such a review should result in less FCC content regulation, not more.