Probably the most damaging appointment Ronald Reagan ever made to his callous, deficit-ridden government was one Mark Fowler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Fowler stayed in office for almost seven years and left a wreckage of public trust behind, flouting the Federal Communications Act of 1934 all the way.
Fowler’s philosophy was that the dollar bill would take care of America’s diverse information needs through radio and television. Just let the marketplace work its unfettered will. Besides violating the 1934 Act which declared a “public interest” standard for broadcasting, Fowler’s policies simply gave more power to the broadcast moguls at the expense of the viewers’ and listeners’ rights.
Viewers and listeners, he told me just after he left office, do not have any first amendment rights to the broadcast media. Only the broadcasters have these free speech rights to be protected by his FCC. This position violates both Supreme Court and Congressional decisions.
Not to be deterred with mere laws and court decisions, Fowler moved to let more television and radio stations be owned by single media moguls or conglomerates. He abolished the long-standing obligations of stations to file program logs with the FCC and ascertain the information needs of their communities. No longer could any citizen or group find the facts in FCC files from which to make judgments and recommendations. Public affairs programming declined and Fowler did not care.
Children’s tv programs became more violent, more commercial and more blending of the characters and the advertisements. And Fowler did not care.
Fowler pushed to make it more difficult for anyone to challenge the
license renewals of television and radio stations. In fact, he wanted to make them virtually permanent, short of felony commissions on the air.
Fowler’s successor and protégé, Dennis Patrick, completed one of his mentor’s dreams which was to abolish the agency’s Fairness Doctrine by an angry Congress last year; he could not stand very profitable broadcasters, who use the public’s airwaves free, having to air both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Even the Westinghouse Broadcasting System, along with some other station owners, wanted the Fairness Doctrine to be left alone.
Last week, Dennis Patrick left office. A coalition of citizen associations, including our group, held a news conference to award him the “Tin Toaster Award.” Earlier, Fowler, overtaken by his non-regulatory exuberance, had described television as a “toaster with pictures.”
“It certainly wasn’t a ‘toaster with pictures’ before the Fowler/Patrick regime,” said David Wagenhauser, staff attorney for the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, “but for the last eight years, they have done everything in their power to create the perfect environment for Pop Tarts.”
The new four-slice toaster, replete with stickers summarizing the FCC’s abdication, was delivered to Chairman Patrick who refused to accept the useful appliance.
Is a viewers revolt brewing? Well, more Americans are complaining about violence, sex and simulation on television. More viewers are upset about cable tv rates soaring, following the Reagan-backed deregulation of the cable industry.
More of the viewing public is wondering why they cannot talk back to their tv set in a variety of ways, other than just being told they can turn it off. And can the local evening tv news be something more than reports of street crime, weather, sports and vapid banter between the anchors?
More broadly, can a critical communications medium serve the public, which pays both indirectly and directly for the public airwaves it owns, by being 90% entertainment and 10% redundant news? The recent vigor of some radio talk shows on important issues, from the governments pay grab to the Exxon oil spill, offers a glimmer of the possible.
Let’s start the television talkback movement rolling by sending your opinions and suggestions to Congressman Edward Markey, House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. He is the chairman of the communications subcommittee and one of the more progressive people in Congress.