Guest Commentary: Minow and the First Amendment - Broadcasting & Cable

Guest Commentary: Minow and the First Amendment

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

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