Monday, August 18, 2008

Popular support for censoring 'public' airwaves

Almost half (47%) of Americans think the government should dictate the political content of radio and television broadcasts in the name of "balance" between liberal and conservative views -- and 31% think the same controls should be imposed on Websites and bloggers. That's according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released last week. All this despite the fact that most Americans (71%) think it is "already possible for just about any political view to be heard in today’s media."

My guess is that many people miss the connection between the lack of a modern "Fairness Doctrine" -- a government mandate to provide "balanced" views in the media -- and the availability of "just about any political view." When the government intervenes -- as it did in the past -- "balance" becomes a matter of airing two flavors of mainstream political views that satisfy the powerful officials who espouse such views, at the expense of ideas that don't easily fit into categories favored by FCC apparatchiks. The easiest way for broadcasters to satisfy the law is to not air too much opinionated discussion, and to keep what they do air within the realm of off-the-shelf received wisdom that is easily packaged with a matching opinion from the "other" side -- as if there are only two sides.

The lethal impact of of Fairness Doctrine-style content regulation on free speech is why Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once wrote, "The Fairness Doctrine has no place in our First Amendment regime. It puts the head of the camel inside the tent and enables administration after administration to toy with TV or radio in order to serve its sordid or its benevolent ends."

Americans are probably more tolerant of open, unregulated debate on the Internet than on the air because the airwaves are considered a "public" medium subject to government censorship. Little known, however, is the fact that the idea of "public" airwaves was originally promulgated by the government -- especially by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover -- to justify government censorship of the (then) new medium of radio when officialdom was still smarting from court decisions reinforcing the autonomy of print media.

In his 1991 book, Freedom, Technology and the First Amendment, Jonathan Emord wrote:

As early as the First National Radio Conference in 1922, Secretary of Commerce Hoover had said that the "ether" was a "public" medium. By the Fourth National Radio Conference in 1925, he had developed a theory that the entire broadcasting industry was one necessarily imbued with a "public" character, that is, a nature that must be under government controls to ensure that it presented programming in the "public interest." ...

In Hoover's view, the broadcaster's freedom of speech had to be suppressed to ensure the propogation of a "preferred" message, one tailored by government for the benefit of the listening public. ...

Hoover's "public airwaves" justification for government control of broadcasting content was as self-serving as a government declaration of a monopoly over newsprint to control the content of newspapers. Unfortunately, it has taken on a life of its own, with people citing the "public" nature of the airwaves as if it were Holy Writ, rather than a political power play by a government official who was more than a bit of a control freak.

So, decades after Hoover made his move, we still have a plurality of Americans demanding that government control the ideas they hear, as if that will somehow be "fair."



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