The Public's Airwaves
by Chris Witteman
People for Better TV, 1999
The National Association of Broadcasters
is coming to town this week. Willie Brown and Colin Powell will
speak, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Three Dog Night will entertain, and
the hospitality suites will be running at full tilt.
And celebrate they should. Congress just
gave existing broadcasters $80 billion worth of new digital spectrum
for free! and has over the last 50 years steadily
reduced the price tag on the existing airwaves.
In 1934 Congress declared that the airwaves
belonged to the people, but the NAB has opposed every attempt
to hold broadcasters accountable to the public. It has fought
against the obligation of broadcasting licensees to ascertain
community needs, has opposed their responsibility to respond with
a certain amount of news and public affairs programming, and has
opposed the Fairness Doctrine, which required coverage of issues
of public importance with equal time to both sides.
Such public obligations get in the way
of a very profitable business. The broadcasters this election
year stand to make more than $600 million in profit from political
ads alone, renting the public's airwaves back to the public's
representatives at a tidy profit. No wonder that both Al Gore
and George W. Bush will spend 48 cents of every campaign dollar
on political ads. The American political system is choking on
money, and the broadcasters are the beneficiaries.
Of course, this favored position costs
money. Since 1996 the NAB and other media groups have spent more
than $112 million in campaign contributions and lobbying money
to persuade government officials that they should get the public's
airwaves for free, $11 million of which was spent on the NAB's
successful effort to kill recent campaign reform bills mandating
free air time for political candidates.
The broadcasters argue that if government
just gets out of the way, the commercial marketplace will produce
a marketplace of ideas. Reality is not so simple or so kind. The
marketplace does not create a broad spectrum of opinion. Instead,
it endlessly replicates the same narrow, dumbed-down, shock-jock
programs that guarantee eyeballs and eardrums to advertisers.
Nowhere on commercial radio is there the
kind of dialogue of ideas found on public radio, on Michael Krasny's
Forum for example, or occasionally on KPFA.
The NAB has succeeded in eliminating barriers
to multiple ownership of broadcasting outlets, so ABC/Disney/Cap
Cities will soon own five San Francisco radio outlets, and your
radio programming will be nationally prepackaged and preselected
just like your Starbucks coffee and the books you buy at Barnes
and Noble. Local reporting and robust peer-to-peer discourse of
differing political views will not exist in the NAB's world.
If, however, democracy depends on just
such discourse, then government has a duty and a need to create
the public spaces where open dialogue can occur. Public broadcasting,
the Fairness Doctrine, and public educational and governmental
cable access channels, as well as government-mandated open architecture,
open access, and open code on the Internet, are all strategies
that the government can employ to create and preserve public fora,
an electronic version of the town square.
In upholding the Fairness Doctrine against
the broadcasters' challenges of 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme
Court held (in the now almost forgotten Red Lion case) that the
First Amendment not only protected the station owner's right to
speak, but also the rights of citizens to have access to a broad
spectrum of opinion and information. This free-speech guarantee
is interpreted more broadly in other Western democracies, where
it is found to create a constitutional duty on the part of government
to guarantee such access. Funding for public broadcasting in these
countries is many times what it is here, and broadcasters are
still seen to occupy positions of public trust.
In the United States broadcasters serve
the interests of their advertisers first and foremost. But the
First Amendment should not be so much about the right to sell
product, as the NAB would have it, but about what the Supreme
Court called the "uninhibited marketplace of ideas."
Chris Witteman is a telecommunications
attorney in San Francisco.
People for Better TV, 1999
Media Reform page