Regulators rely on hearings while broadcasters rely on ratings. But where does the Christian plug in?

He’s been called the gatekeeper—that unseen, unheralded mediator of what you read, see, and hear. He’s the editor. He stands guard over the narrow channel through which the goods of his trade—information—pass from the private to the public realm. He’s the arbiter over a thousand bits of information clamoring for public attention. Each choice he makes limits in some way our choices of what we will know. Yet the gatekeeper’s role is essential to the information process. It gives some organization and balance to an otherwise indecipherable glut of contradictory facts and feelings. The responsibility is immense.

The gatekeeper analogy, first applied to the newspaper editor in 1949, has ever-increasing relevance in what we glibly call today’s information age. Contemporary society is fueled by information—in commerce, education, and leisure. Our government of, by, and for the people presupposes an informed public. And because of the profound way in which information affects our lives, the role of the gatekeeper becomes an ethical issue for Christians.

Television has now succeeded the newspaper as America’s primary source of public information. But is television ready to inherit that mantle from newspapers? The broadcaster says no.

From his perspective, the broadcaster does not stand alone at the gate. The government, personified in the Federal Communications Commission, rests a heavy hand on his shoulder, second-guessing his news judgment. Specifically, broadcasters claim the FCC has regulated free speech off the air through the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to balance their treatment of controversial issues; and equal time rules, which require stations that provide one political candidate air time to do so for all opponents.

These two policies constitute government control of program content, they say, denying broadcasters the First Amendment guarantees of free speech enjoyed by the print media. Since the net effect of the Fairness Doctrine and equal time rules is to scare broadcasters away from controversial and political issues, the ultimate loser in this equation is the public, which is deprived of open debate.

So broadcasters are mounting a vigorous campaign to win repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, equal time rules, and other content controls from the 1934 Communications Act, the legislative mandate that undergirds regulation of the broadcast industry.

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In its annual convention last year, the National Association of Broadcasters kicked off the crusade with a theme of “full First Amendment freedom for broadcasters.” Among the heavyweights there to endorse the campaign was Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Oreg.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, who called for a constitutional amendment extending freedom of speech to the electronic media. Even President Reagan, himself a former radio announcer and TV star, sent a letter of endorsement to the NAB conventioneers.

Testifying before Packwood’s committee last November, CBS News anchorman Dan Rather said, “It is ironic … that as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the medium on which the public most relies for its news and information must still answer to a government agency empowered to decide on the fairness, balance, and responsibility of its reporting on public events.”

But the National Association of Broadcasters has been arguing for full First Amendment rights for 60 years. What’s different now? For the first time in memory, the cause has an advocate chairing the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the Communications Act. Keynoting that same convention last year, Reagan appointee Mark Fowler said, “It’s one thing for stations to follow principles like fairness and equal time.… It’s another when the government enforces those rules. That I call censorship.”

Fowler’s FCC has asked Congress to drop the Fairness Doctrine and equal time rules from the Communications Act.

Should we extend full First Amendment rights to broadcasters? What will it cost us? Before we look for a distinctively Christian response to those questions, we must see them in the context of broadcast history and practice.

Whose First Amendment Is It?

It seems a simple argument, firmly based in one of America’s paramount traditions of freedom. Certainly free speech poses no ethical dilemma for us. The Constitution promises that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Had the Founding Fathers only foreseen the potential for speech to be transmitted electronically as well as on a printed page, they could have added another clause to the First Amendment. But 60 years of broadcasting experience reveal a more complicated picture.

The first comprehensive regulation of broadcasting, enacted in 1927, was designed to resolve a chaotic interference problem in the fledgling industry. The 732 radio stations on the air were using whatever power and frequency served their needs, regardless of the damage they did to each other. The interference that resulted made it impossible for most stations to operate effectively. The Federal Radio Commission, created by the Radio Act of 1927, determined there was not room on the air for all the stations. One-fifth of them had to go.

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The public and most broadcasters benefited from the decision. The commission was given authority to assign each radio station its frequency and power. But in order to do that, and for broadcasting even to get off the ground, the government also had to limit the free speech of most citizens. It was illegal for anyone else to broadcast on an assigned frequency.

So broadcasting exists as an effective medium only because the free speech rights of the majority of citizens have been limited.

Broadcasters, understandably, see this argument differently. Since anyone can legally own a station, those who do are not depriving anyone else of his rights. While this may be true, it is not too practical. Not everyone can afford a broadcast station; there are not enough to go around; and if there were enough for each of us, there would be no one to listen. To be an effective medium, broadcasting assumes that most of us are not broadcasters.

The free speech issue took another turn in 1949 when the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines for editorializing. Ironically, this document stated broadcasters had the freedom of speech. However, this freedom was subordinate to the public’s freedom of speech, which was in essence the freedom to hear all sides of an issue. The Fairness Doctrine was born. The public interest took precedence over the interest of the broadcaster.

It seems contradictory to the American tradition of free speech that one group’s freedom could count more than another’s. But in a sense, that has always been so. In the same way that freedom of speech doesn’t permit a person to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, or to make libelous statements about another, there have always been some restrictions on speech. Freedom of speech and press were written into the Constitution to protect a higher freedom—the right of every citizen to be informed. We tend to make freedom of speech an end in itself, rather than a means to a higher good—the public interest.

Who Regulates The Regulators?

But who is best suited to protect the public interest? Broadcasters say it is not a proper role for the government, since the First Amendment was instituted as a guarantee against oppressive rulers. For the government to form a federal agency, such as the FCC, to oversee such important matters as free speech would be like giving the fox the key to the hen house.

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Broadcasters contend the best protection of the public’s interest in the media is an unfettered, uncoerced freedom of speech answerable only to the public itself. Left alone, broadcasting could produce such a system, using audience ratings as a constant barometer of the public will. If the people do not approve of what they see and hear on TV, they can vote it off the air simply by turning the dial. Without viewer support, objectionable programs would be cancelled. What is produced is a continuous referendum on broadcaster performance, courtesy of the Nielsen ratings.

This is, of course, an argument for marketplace regulation, the fad these days. To quote an NAB brochure, “Broadcasters who do not hold the public trust simply do not survive.… Broadcasters not meeting the needs of the community do not maintain local interest or economic viability.”

But such assumptions reflect more political opportunism than economic reality. Deregulatory fever has hit broadcasting the past two years. The FCC has loosened its grip on the industry, removing many of the controls on program content considered by previous commissions to be safeguards of the public interest. It only makes sense, in such a climate, that broadcasters would go after the regulations they consider most threatening—fairness and equal time.

In reality, the radio and TV marketplace answers to many more pressures than public interest. The courts and Congress have consistently held that broadcasting is a special case, requiring a special type of regulation. Economic forces alone cannot protect us.

If the public interest is enforced when we “vote with the dial,” as broadcasters suggest, what are the results? To begin with, more than half of us do not count in this referendum. Even during the top viewing time of the day (prime time) 58 percent of us are doing something besides watching TV, according to the 1982 Nielsen report. But rather than counting as a negative vote, this is considered an abstention. “Dallas” is a television hit not because a majority of Americans enjoy it, but because 25 percent of us watch it. As custodian of the public interest, the ratings see only viewers, not all citizens.

But this electorate is reduced even further. The objective of broadcasters is not to amass a consensus of Americans behind their programming, but to deliver an audience of consumers to the advertisers. Therefore not all viewers count, but only those who matter to sponsors. Most products are marketed to women 18–49 years of age, since they do most of the shopping. So it is to the broadcasters’ market advantage to please not a cross section of viewers, but women in that age bracket. Others do not count for much. Television executives are not too interested in aiming programs at children and people over 55, even though they comprise about 40 percent of the prime time audience. It is hard to see how this system represents the public interest of the poor, the elderly, minorities, or even the majority of us. Instead of voting with the dial, we are actually voting with our pocket-books in a kind of supermarket referendum.

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It is too bad broadcasters have tied their First Amendment arguments to marketplace regulation. There could be advantages to allowing the electronic media more editorial freedom. But if the current broadcasting marketplace is a demonstration of what we could expect them to do with it, should they be surprised at our reluctance? Les Brown, former chairman of the FCC, recently said, “Anyone who just arrived here from another country and didn’t know anything about the First Amendment could be forgiven for mistaking it as a constitutional right to make money in communications.”

As it stands, repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and equal time rules seems unlikely soon. The legislation will probably be introduced in Congress, as it is each year, but it is considered a “back-burner” issue even by some on the FCC staff. The strong lobbying activity of broadcasters could change that, however. Meanwhile, Senator Packwood has set no timetable for submitting his constitutional amendment extending free speech to the electronic media. That approach is more comprehensive, but would take even longer.

A compromise solution to the First Amendment question has been suggested. Called structural regulation, it purports to protect both the right to speak and the right to know. It takes as a starting point the First Amendment intention of diversity—that the public interest is served when a variety of voices can address the issues. But government regulation of broadcasting has instead limited diversity, first by limiting free speech and then by allowing a few voices to dominate through the present three-network system. The solution is to remove controls on speech while at the same time severely limiting the number of broadcasting outlets one person or group can control, this through strict ownership rules and antitrust laws. Rather than making each broadcaster responsible for diversity, we create an atmosphere that encourages diversity among stations.

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This sounds particularly appealing at a time when new broadcast technologies are promising to multiply our viewing options and complicate our efforts to control program content. But structural regulation faces strong opposition from the broadcasting establishment, which is providing much of the financial support and technical innovation for development of cable TV, low-power TV and other new services. Forced to choose between a free market and free speech, the broadcaster may decide he cannot afford his preference.

Who Will Decide?

Minding the gate has never been easy. The choices are hard. Their consequences are weighty.

It is clear that as we come to grips with the information age we will have to reevaluate our balance of First Amendment freedoms. What will we as Christians have to contribute to the deliberations?

1. Christians have a conviction about free speech. Our ultimate confidence in the power of truth convinces us that a free marketplace of ideas enhances all of our freedoms. Those of us who have benefited from the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment know the importance of defending its neighbor in the Bill of Rights—the free speech clause. If there is a just way to extend free speech to broadcasting without jeopardizing the balance of freedoms, we will not hesitate to endorse it.

2. But as Christians we also see freedom’s flip side, responsibility. It is disturbing to hear broadcasters argue for free speech and then pass the accompanying responsibility on to the marketplace. Any practice of freedom that insulates itself from its consequences is abusive. There is serious doubt that responsibility to the public interest is inherent in marketplace regulation of broadcasting.

There have been efforts in the past to build responsibility into the system through self-regulation. But few people are satisfied with the results. For the most part, broadcasters are honest and responsible citizens. But the economic pressures of competition handicap those who would take self-regulation seriously. Self-regulation in children’s television has been disappointing to most observers. And even the legality of self-regulation has been called into question by a Justice Department lawsuit against the NAB’s TV Code, prompting the NAB to cancel the code indefinitely. If we extend further freedoms to the electronic media, we must insure that the inherent responsibilities are not left behind.

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3. We have said the gatekeeper’s choices have ethical impact. Yet as Christians we must point out that neither government regulation nor the marketplace can produce an ethic to govern those choices. There is a void that must be filled. We cannot expect the public interest to be served as long as this is absent.

Christians often find themselves among the critics of television. Many are displeased with the moral tone and content of TV programming. But we have also isolated ourselves from the gatekeeper and his task. We are critics at a distance. Unless we take on our own responsibility to fill the ethical void, we have no right to complain that TV falls short of our moral standards. We cannot require of the gatekeeper an obedience for which we have not given him the power. This means we must become a part of the media processes, find out how they work, and find ways to influence them positively.

We cannot afford for the world of television to be a foreign or esoteric concern. The communications landscape of today will shape tomorrow’s world. For too long we have surrendered this leadership to others. The gatekeeper’s choices move us, mold us—in a way, they are our choices.

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