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Ralph Nader > Opinions/Editorials > Packwood Maneuver

Sen. Robert Packwood is a rare kind of Republican. He favors strong lifesaving auto-safety standards. He is a champion of women’s rights groups. Last year, he urged a stronger stand by consumer groups against an effort in Congress to weaken the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection mission.

But when it comes to the broadcasting industry, the Oregonian becomes a clone of Barry Goldwater. He wants to repeal the modest restraints on the monopoly power of radio and TV stations over the public’s airwaves.

Desiring this objective is bad enough; but even more unbecoming is the way Packwood, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is going about getting his way. No hearings were held by his committee and no markup sessions were con­ducted on his proposals. Rather than pursuing this deliberative process, the senator attached them to the Senate’s budget reconciliation bill under the pretext of raising the miniscule annual fees that broadcasting stations pay the U.S. government for their very profitable licenses.

With this maneuver, Packwood signaled his willingness to have the House of Representatives accept this giveaway of the public’s broadcasting rights without a House hearing and markup. On July 16, 1981, the two congressmen with jurisdiction over the broadcasting industry—John Dingell (D-Mich.), and Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.)—dispatched a letter to House Budget Committee Chairman James Jones (D-Okla.) recommending resistance to Packwood’s move.

Why would such -a wide assortment of labor,-university, church groups, consumer groups (in­cluding our own) and children’s defense associations also oppose Sen. Packwood’s rush to precipitous judgment? The answers lie in a small section he in­serted in the budget reconciliation bill’s hundreds of pages, to wit:

  1. Radio stations would be granted permanent licenses. Under present law, stations have to renew every three years, at which time they have to meet certain modest standards.
  2. New licenses for radio and TV could be granted through a lottery.
  3. Radio stations no longer would have to ascertain community needs or meet community-information program requirements.
  4. Enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine as it ap­plies to radio will be difficult if not impossible.
  5. Television station licenses will be awarded for five years, instead of the current three, and citizens will be virtually stripped of rights to challenge these stations’ fitness.
  6. The right to file a competing application will be eliminated for both radio and television.

The American people—not the radio and TV stations—own the public airwaves. Yet time and time again when Congress is asked to destroy existing public standards for licensing these airwaves, the television stations black out the news conferences or congressional hearings. The only time the networks covered the 1979 House and Senate hearings on the broadcasting industry was the day the network presidents testified.

At a recent press conference in the new Senate Office Building, 30 of the abovementioned civic, church and labor groups observed only Cable News Network there to cover the event. No radio stations and no other television stations were there.

The broadcasters make their critics’ point. When confronted with a conflict between reporting critical news about themselves to the public or protecting their position, they choose the later. The networks’ choice of one-hour documentaries has not included on the new technology of communications of the issues of viewer or listener access rights.

Peggy Charren, a founder of Action for Children’s Television (ACT), cautioned that the public would not be easily shut out by the likes of the Packwood provisions. She believes that “if the mechanisms to ensure broadcaster accountability are eliminated, Americans will be left with censorship tactics, such as boycotting sponsors and blacklisting programs, as their only means of action.” –

Sen. Packwood maintains that new communications technology—cable, satellite, video disc and so on—makes unnecessary the old governmental rules for broadcasting. But when the power is concentrated and unilateral, the diversity of technology is of little consequence whether five or 100 channels are available.

Perhaps the senator and his supporters need to peer into the crystal ball and envision what recourse they are left with, should their ideas prevail, when a radio or TV commentator slanders them or grossly distorts their voting records. I doubt whether the senator will cut a video disc reply to replace the Fairness Doctrine he wants abolished.