BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's been a wild ride for the FCC this year. First, it voted to allow a company to own stations that reach up to 45 percent of TV households and to own both a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. Then the Senate voted to repeal the new rules. Now that measure sits motionless in the House, and the president had threatened it with a veto if it passes. Oh, and there's also court action under way that challenges the new rules. So, it seems to be a stalemate, at least until the next legislative session. Enter New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, who wants to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. He doesn't have a chance, but we thought we'd consider what's happened in the 15 years since the Fairness Doctrine vanished from the FCC rule book. One of many rules devised to protect diversity, it required stations to address controversial issues and air a variety of viewpoints, but critics like Rush Limbaugh said it would quash voices like his. Joining me to discuss all this is Mark Fowler, FCC chairman under President Reagan, on the line from Florida. Welcome to the show.
MARK FOWLER: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Andrew Schwartzman is president and CEO of the Media Access Project. Andy, welcome to you too.
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: Hi, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when was the last time the two of you got together to debate the Fairness Doctrine?
MARK FOWLER: I would imagine it would probably have been, Andy, in 1985/'86?
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: Probably.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, it was a goal of your tenure at the FCC to get rid of the Fairness Doctrine. ]
MARK FOWLER: Yes. That's right. We had this doctrine that basically said a broadcaster, when presenting issues of public importance, had to present all significant sides of that issue. Sounded great in theory. The problem is you had to have the government involved in deciding whether a broadcaster was, quote, "fair" in presenting particular issues of public importance. If you read the plain language of the First Amendment, the plain meaning of the language is pretty clear. "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of the press." And that plain language meant no -- meant no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andy, what do you say to that?
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: The Supreme Court has held, and repeatedly held, that the purpose of the First Amendment is to promote informed debate so that the democratic process works optimally, and that sometimes means taking steps to promote the discussion of issues, which is what, as Mark described, the Fairness Doctrine does. A requirement that broadcasters cover controversial issues of importance in their community.
MARK FOWLER: The printed press never had a Fairness Doctrine, never had the government looking at content to decide whether a publisher was fair or not, and it's worked very, very well. Moreover, I think it's unnecessary. We've got multitudes of voices in the marketplace today of ideas. We've got cable, satellites, radio, the internet, books, newspapers -- we don't need a Fairness Doctrine. There's no need for the government to be involved, and the common man and common woman can decide for themselves out of this welter of voices and opinions what they believe and what they think is fair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andy, don't you trust the common man?
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: I trust the common man, but I also know that the common man is overwhelmingly influenced in how public opinion is shaped by newspapers and over-the-air television, and to a lesser degree, radio. That's the way that people decide for whom they're going to vote. The plethora of media voices out there that Mark talks about are not a plethora of influential media voices, nor are they a plethora of locally-based voices. All of the cable channels, the internet, is not a meaningful source of local news and opinion. Broadcasters are licensed to serve particular communities. Now, it's true that newspapers are not subject to the Fairness Doctrine, but newspapers are not licensed, and newspapers don't get free use of the public's airwaves and the public spectrum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems that the chilling effect has been invoked both in favor of and against the Fairness Doctrine. Does the Fairness Doctrine have a chilling effect, Mark, or doesn't it?
MARK FOWLER: Well, we've demonstrated with a very thorough record at the FCC that we compiled that it did, because it got broadcasters into trouble sometimes when it was felt by some group or individual in a community that a particular broadcaster hadn't balanced it "fairly," quote/unquote. And then they lodged a complaint with the FCC. And stations were threatened with revocation of their licenses. So it certainly had a chilling effect.
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: The more useful thing to look at is experience since 1987. What we have had happen in city after city after city is a loss of diversity because in most markets, typically one or two stations now do programming that involves discussion of issues, and the others, far from just no longer wanting to do controversy, are literally piping it in from the other side of the country, doing it in an automated way, and losing touch with their communities. We have much less dynamism, much less diversity, much less mixing it up, because not having to do controversy, most stations don't want to do controversy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The talk radio community has said that people like Rush Limbaugh wouldn't have been allowed to exist under the Fairness Doctrine.
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: But nobody says that, and including Mark ever said, that-- the Fairness Doctrine requires that a particular program or a particular host provide all the balance or the particular programs be internally balanced. The question is whether in the course of the overall broadcast day there's some discussion of opposing points of view.
MARK FOWLER: Great theory, Andy, and I know Andy believes this with all his heart, but the problem is that the government is the one that steps in and decides if it's fair or not -- that broadcast station. That is not what the First Amendment says.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andy do you think that the market should be allowed to decide these things?
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN:I think that the market is imperfect. That's why Congress had to pass a law saying that it's necessary to provide programming to meet the needs of children. Even Mark agreed that there was a marketplace failure in children, but on the same First Amendment theories that he talked about a moment ago, he didn't want to require that kind of programming. The marketplace is imperfect. It under-serves the needs of those who are not commercially, demographically attractive to advertisers, and those are the people whose viewpoints and perspectives we need to hear about as well. So it, it diminishes the quality and nature of the democracy.
MARK FOWLER: First Amendment doesn't say that everybody in an audience gets the right to speak. It doesn't mean that everybody at a town meeting has the right to get up or is able to voice their opinion. It's not perfect in that respect. But what the First Amendment does say is that the government is not in the auditorium, trying to monitor the fairness or the unfairness of given speakers or the balance of the overall presentation. And I think you want a perfect world of what you call fair and balanced programming. And the problem, again, is you want the government to step in to assure that, and that's I think where we disagree.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last question. Our program this week is about media and democracy. All in all, do we have a democratic broadcast system today?
MARK FOWLER: Yes, we do, and a democratic society, I believe, Brooke, absolutely requires that the system be free, and again, that's what this whole discussion has been about. Fair is great, but free is the most important value when it comes to the electronic press and the marketplace of ideas. And that's what the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine honored.
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: I would say that we have the best system broadcasting in the world, and it has been because of, not in spite of, the system of regulation, including the Fairness Doctrine that's operated since 1934. And unfortunately, I see the trend going in the wrong direction, and I see some of the luster of the system being worn off by deregulation, and the critical turning point in that was 1987 when the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Andrew Schwartzman is the president and CEO of The Media Access Project, and he joined us from the NPR studios in Washington. Thanks, Andy.
ANDREW SCHWARTZMAN: This is more fun than I should have. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Fowler was the chairman of the FCC from 1981 to 1987, and he joined us from his home in Florida. Thank you, too, Mark.