Minow and the First Amendment

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Both former Federal Communications Commission
chairman Newton Minow and current chairman 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!

Mark Fowler is also a former FCC chairman, having served
during the Reagan administration. His piece was a response
to a conversation between Minow and Genachowski in
Washington, D.C., at a forum marking the 50th anniversary
of Minow’s ‘Vast Wasteland’ speech.