Saturday, 03 August 2019 18:39

GUEST EDITORIAL: FCC ‘viewpoint diversity’ study threatens speech

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Helping women and minorities find their place behind the microphone and camera as broadcasters is commendable, but telling bureaucrats to monitor radio and television stations’ political leanings is a bridge too far. 


That’s our message to U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the Wilson Democrat and House chief deputy majority whip who recently introduced H.R. 3957, the Expanding Broadcast Opportunities Act of 2019. It’s a cautionary note his constituents and all defenders of free expression should echo. 

Butterfield’s bill addresses a genuine disparity. According to the legislation, less than 6% of the nation’s 1,700 commercial broadcast television stations are woman-owned and less than 3% are minority-owned. In radio, women own about 7% of FM stations and minorities own less than 3%. 

Those low figures aren’t reflective of participation in other industries, where woman and minority ownership is five times to 10 times higher than in broadcasting. 

To help diversify radio and TV, Butterfield is asking Congress to reauthorize a minority tax certificate program the Federal Communications Commission operated from 1978 to 1995. Investors who provide capital to minority-controlled broadcasting companies could benefit. 

Opponents may cry foul, but if the federal government ought to incentivize anything, diverse management of the public airwaves is as good a place as any to start. 

Radio and television stations operate on over-the-air frequencies that reside in the public domain. While the stations are privately owned, the channels on which they’re broadcast are leased from the FCC, which issues licenses it can renew and revoke. Since all broadcasting hinges on public-private partnerships, it’s tough to find fault with a modest expansion of that premise. Why shouldn’t the small group of Americans who control our public airwaves better reflect the United States’ diverse population? 

The trouble arrives on page 8 of the 12-page bill, which directs the FCC to study “whether there is a nexus between diversity of ownership or control of broadcast stations...and diversity of the viewpoints expressed in the matter broadcast.” 

Studying broadcasters’ viewpoints could too easily lead to regulating content. FCC bureaucrats have no business monitoring news reporting and presenting Congress with an exhaustive list of who leans left, who leans right and who presents both sides. That’s a job better suited to a ministry of propaganda in an authoritarian country that lacks our robust free speech protections. 

Government rarely gathers data it doesn’t intend to use. It’s no great leap from a determination that viewpoint diversity is preferable to a policy that viewpoint diversity — as Congress defines it — will become a requirement. That would serve as a regulatory end-run around the First Amendment that could endanger the editorial independence of TV and radio news.

The oft-cited equal time rule applies to the sale of political advertising. When critics invoke it to decry biased broadcasts, what they really mean to cite is the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct rule that required hosts to strive for balance. 

A censorious relic from 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was eroded by Supreme Court rulings favorable to free speech rights in 1969 and 1974. The FCC rescinded the rule in 1987. Butterfield would be wise to avoid reanimating its corpse. 

While the airwaves are public, the United States relies on the commercial marketplace of listeners, viewers and advertisers  to regulate the content of broadcast news. There’s no room in that equation for meddlesome bureaucrats. 

Radio and television stations should have more freedom, not less, to chart their own course. In a signal that the tide could be turning against the FCC’s rules prohibiting indecent language, a 6-3 Supreme Court majority ruled June 24 that a federal policy barring the registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks was unconstitutional. We’ve long held that the 1978 FCC v. Pacifica Foundation case affirming the indecency ban was wrongly decided and should be overturned. 

No good can come from FCC functionaries fretting over broadcasters’ political speech. We urge Congressman Butterfield to rescind this problematic provision of his otherwise unobjectionable bill.