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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Censored Broadcasts

Mark Fowler wants to take away from you the last remaining rights to have access to public property — namely the public airwaves, unless, that is, you happen to own a radio or television station.

Who is Mark Fowler? He is the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the darling of the broadcasting industry and Ronald Reagan. A former lawyer for that industry, Fowler roared into office in early 1981 determined to “free” the TV and radio companies from their “trusteeship” obligations to the audience under federal law. The FCC licenses these radio and television stations which control and profit handsomely from the public airwaves and pay no license fee at all for the privilege.
No one in years has pandered so unctuously before an industry and avoided so assiduously speaking to consumer groups than Mr. Fowler. From his speeches before broadcasters, often at their Las Vegas convention spas, Fowler tells them what he is doing and has done. For example, he has sharply reduced the amount of information you can obtain about your local stations at the FCC. These data are important for citizen or community groups at station license renewal time.

Second, he wants to eliminate all limitations on how many broadcast and cable stations any one company can own and end many of the safeguards concerning who can own a station.

Third, he has asked Congress “to repeal the Fairness Doctrine and equal time laws because they violate C the broadcasters] First Amendment rights.” Somehow, for 50 years the U.S. Supreme Court has managed to disagree with Mr. Fowler on this point.

The Fairness Doctrine requires broadcasters to present a diversity of views on important issues. The equal time and “personal attack” rules require stations to give a political candidate or an individual personally criticized with a right to respond.

Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, has said of Fowler’s moves that what is at stake is nothing less than the “control of information in a democratic society.”

But even some industry leaders are critical of Fowler. Daniel Ritchie, head of Group W, Westinghouse Broadcasting and Cable Co., recently expressed strong support for the Fairness Doctrine and against total deregulation of broadcasting. He declared: “Broadcasting’s Fairness Doctrine is not a restraint on the First Amendment, but a stimulus to it. It is not censorship of broadcasting, but rather the public’s best protection against censorship.”

Fowler’s basic argument is that there are so many, television and radio stations and cable outlets (arid soon low power TV) that broadcasters’ duties toward the audience (like ascertaining community needs and access obligations) are no longer needed. Scarcity of stations, he says, is being replaced by the abundance of new communication technologies.

His critics say that, unlike putting out a newspaper or newsletter, anyone wanting to broadcast has to get a government license. Otherwise there would be some chaos over the airwaves. Professor Charles Firestone said of Fowler’s marketplace approach: “As long as there is not free entry in and out, there isn’t a marketplace.” I have never heard about any broadcaster who wants to end the government’s licensing requirement or even share broadcasting hours during the day with another licensee. No way, these broadcasters know, how valuable a governmentally protectedexclusive channel is on the broadcast spectrum.

Perhaps conservative jurist, Supreme Court Chief Burner, made the case for some station accountability to the FCC most authoritatively:

“A broadcaster seeks and is granted the free and exclusive use of a limited and valuable part of the public domain; when he accepts that franchise it is burdened by enforceable public obligations…a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty.” Undeterred by reason, law or experience, Fowler continues his drive to overthrow fifty years of “safety nets” for TV and radio audiences. Sometimes he gets carried away with himself. In one of his Las Vegas speeches, he made this comparison with what he believed was the broadcaster’s skill in giving the public what it wants on t v and radio:

“This ingenuity, this keen sense of what people want, turned this [Las Vegas] into one of the world’s premier tourist attractions from what was once — how shall I put it? — a vast wasteland.” Not a few in the audience snickered uncomfortably.