With much of the media world celebrating the life of Walter Cronkite this weekend, we have to wonder what he would have thought about press reports that the FCC is considering the commencement of a proceeding to investigate the status of broadcast journalism – assessing its quality, determining whether the Internet and other new sources are making up for any quality that is lost, and potentially deciding to mandate specific amounts of news coverage by broadcast stations. That surprising story about a planned FCC Notice of Inquiry on the state of broadcast journalism was reported in an an online report picked up by the broadcast trade press last week. And even if that story is not true, concerns about the government’s intrusion into a broadcaster’s coverage of controversial issues arise from the recent Congressional committee action voting down a bill that would ban the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. In what should have been a symbolic embrace of the First Amendment (symbolic as, in the last 6 weeks, four of the FCC Commissioners or Commissioners-to-be disavowed any interest in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine in their confirmation hearings ), the defeat of the bill raises questions as to whether someone has an agenda to resurrect the government’s role in assessing broadcast media coverage of controversial issues. In reading one of the many stories of the life of Cronkite (here, at page 3), we were stuck with the contrast between these actions, and the actions of Mr. Cronkite to address controversial issues – regardless of the FCC implications. One anecdote related his questioning of John Kennedy about his religion when Kennedy thought that topic off limits, even in light of the potential president’s veiled threat that, when he took office, he would be appointing the FCC who would be regulating CBS. Do we really want the FCC to have that power to assess what journalism is good, or what opinions each station must air to ensure "fairness"?
In reviewing the many FCC Fairness Doctrine claims that CBS faced in the Cronkite era, we are struck with the amount of time and money that must have been spent in defending its coverage against critics from both the right and the left. We also found one particularly relevant quote from Mr. Cronkite himself:
That brings me to what I consider the greatest threat to freedom of information: the Government licensing of broadcasting. Broadcast news today is not free. Because it is operated by an industry that is beholden to the Government for its right to exist, its freedom has been curtailed by fiat, by assumption, and by intimidation and harassment.
In the last 20 years, since Mr. Cronkite’s retirement as the CBS anchor, the FCC has steadily moved away from the role that he feared. Yet with these recent actions, one wonders if there are some in government now trying to prove Mr. Cronkite’s concerns correct.
We are somewhat dubious that the FCC has the resources to assess “quality” journalism. But even if it was to apply resources to the task, how can it do so consistent with the First Amendment? Such an investigation would be a retreat from the FCC’s open-minded recognition in the last decade that the public receives information from many types of broadcast programming – not just the so-called "hard news." In the political broadcasting arena, the FCC has recognized that the broadcast audience can obtain valuable information, information worth protecting as “bona fide news interviews” not subject to the equal time rule, from diverse sources – even from programs as diverse as Entertainment Tonight, The Tonight Show or Howard Stern (see our post here). While these programs may not be the ones that some people think should exemplify sources of news and information for the public, others may well see these programs are providing commentary on issues about which they care. Should the government forbid that choice?
The justification for any regulation mandating “good news” might include the claim that a mandate is not saying that programs such as ET or Howard Stern should not air, just that "quality news" should also be aired. But any mandate to air any sort of program has its consequences in that there is simply a limited amount of broadcast time. Mandating some types of programs will of necessity require that others not be aired. For the government to make the decisions as to what will air and what will not would seem to violate the First Amendment. Whenever I look at these sorts of issues, I always ask “what if that regulation was applied to a newspaper? Would it seem reasonable under the First Amendment?” In this case, imagine if the Federal government was to tell the New York Times, or the New York Post (or, for that matter, the National Enquirer) that it didn’t like the quality of some of its stories, and it should only publish more stories that were “quality” stories. You could imagine the howls of protest that would follow. Shouldn’t those same howls follow here?
Any proposal to mandate news on every station looks back to a different time in broadcasting, the time in which Walter Cronkite could be the most trusted man in American. It was a time when there were three commercial television stations in most markets, and a handful of radio stations, and all could afford to do news. Along with the local newspaper (or newspapers), these were the only real sources of breaking news in a community. In today’s media world, that simply is not the case. The competition for the delivery of news and information is just too vast. Thirty years ago, this blog or the thousands like it would not have existed. Just as newspapers are having tremendous financial difficulties because of enormous amount of media competition (and accelerated by the slump in advertising sales tied to the state of the economy), broadcasters too are feeling the same pressures. On the same day that the story about the potential FCC investigation of broadcast news broke, another story ran in the Washington Post, reporting on the reorganization and potential downsizing of the newsroom at NBC’s Washington DC owned and operated station – one of the DC market’s news leaders for many years. When successful network owned stations are forced to change their operations to adapt to the new media marketplace, one recognizes that this is simply not the same media world that may have existed 30 years ago.
Media fragmentation leads to the fragmentation in the delivery of news and information. The government cannot put the genie back in the bottle. To mandate that each station cover the "news" in a community, when each station may be catering to just a niche audience in that community, is to miss the reality of today’s media. To force perceived "fairness" on every issue is to insure bland programming that stays away from controversial viewpoints (see some of our previous posts on this issue).
We trust that we are reading far more into the press report of the FCC Notice of Inquiry, and into the action of the House Committee on the Fairness Doctrine. At this time when we honor a giant of broadcast journalism, let’s hope that the government honors his legacy, and ensures that the broadcast press remains free.