Government involvement in media is something pretty much everyone accepts. The FCC hands out licenses for individual TV stations, requires individual buildings to be far enough away from each other to not interfere with signals, and requires TV/radio stations give the same amount of time to candidates in prime-time. These regulations may seem common sense to most people, but in reality they’re an attack on the First Amendment and freedom of the press.
It’s no shock the federal government has attempted to tamp down on press at various times in our history. The infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of the late 1700’s made it illegal for a press outlet to publish a news story the government deemed was a lie. Three publishers, including a sitting congressman, were convicted under the act and given fines and/or prison. Almost all the acts, specifically the ones over sedition, were expunged when Thomas Jefferson became president. But the stage was set for the government to wheedle its way into the press’s freedom to publish whatever they wanted.
The invention of radio and TV made it even easier for the government to start exerting some form of control over what was published or broadcast. Congress used the sinking of the Titanic to first force its way into the airwaves, by requiring all radio stations be registered with the government. If you didn’t abide by the terms of the law, including broadcasting emergency notifications, the government could revoke your license and seize your equipment. The government’s control over radio became even more powerful when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927 (signed by my favorite president, Calvin Coolidge), which let the Federal Radio Commission grant and deny licenses and review what was put out over the airwaves. Mark Goodman from Mississippi State University wrote in Media History Monograms that future president Herbert Hoover saw radio much like others now see the Internet.
Speaking at the third Washington conference on radio legislation, Hoover said broadcasters needed free speech and the right to broadcast, but that broadcasting needed to be free of “malice and unwholesomeness,” which would be accomplished if broadcasters acted in the public interest. If the radio industry could operate in the public interest, he believed that self-regulation would have been adequate. However, Hoover described radio as a “public utility” that needed to be “double-guarded” because of its entry into the home. He agreed that radio needed to be managed in the public interest. In November 1925, Hoover had explained his concept of public interest: “We hear a great deal about the freedom of the air, but there are two parties to freedom of the air, and to freedom of speech for that matter. There is the speechmaker and the listener. Certainly in radio I believe in freedom for the listener.”
In the end, not everyone who sought to speak would be allowed to use radio, Hoover continued, which meant that the primary question of regulation would be “who is to do the broadcasting.” Knowing Hoover would oversee the transition to the Federal Radio Commission comforted many in Congress.
This is the problem with government involvement in media: it restricts freedom, even if things are a little more chaotic than expected. In reality the government should have been patient and watched as those who couldn’t afford to keep broadcasting would slowly disappear, freeing up the airwaves from useless broadcasts. Newspapers go under all the time so the same could be said for radio stations which tried to live off their own product and selling ads. If it doesn’t work then the stations crash and burn, but the notion of free speech is protected.
But the government wasn’t interested in simply letting the free market take its course and grabbed power as quickly as possible in the late 1940’s over TV. The FCC, which replaced the Federal Radio Commission in the 30’s, decided there were too many TV stations and froze all licenses in 1948. The FCC started handing out licenses again in 1952, but the move, plus the previous legislation regarding radio, made things more difficult for upstart broadcasters like DuMont Television. The company lasted about ten years before shutting down because of conflicts with the government, Paramount Pictures, and AT&T. A part of the problem is the fact the FCC limited how many owned and operated stations companies could own in the country at five, and it ruled that Paramount’s involvement with DuMont limited its opportunities to expand. See how the government picks winners and losers? If the bureaucrats had decided to not get involved in regulation, but trust consumers to pick which stations survived, and which failed, the market would be more free and options even more open. It’s possible technology would have expanded even faster than before because DuMont, which was a TV manufacturer, was working on a variety of technology at the time.
Then there’s the notion of “equal time.” It’s understandable why the government, federal, state, and local, wants to make sure all sides get their say. It’s smart for individual outlets to go to both sides for comment, especially in elections. But there’s no reason for this policy, regardless of whether it makes things “more fair.” It just harkens back to the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, where people could be put in prison and/or fined for not obeying government edicts. The odious Fairness Doctrine is another example of government intervention into programming on the idea of giving people both points of view. Thankfully, the Fairness Doctrine is a thing of the past, even though Democrats have showed support for bringing it back..
The fact is this: the government doesn’t need to be involved what TV or radio stations broadcast. The idea of Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech (for, say, programs lampooning one side or the other) is something we as Americans should hold dear. It includes letting things we don’t like actually make it on the airwaves. The mostly unregulated Internet, save for ridiculous cronyism at a local level, shows the importance of letting individuals do what they want, when they want. It would be nice just to sit here and say, “Well, kill the FCC,” to solve the problem. That would be a step, but it’s only a step. Americans need to be better educated on why freedom of speech and freedom of press, without government intervention, is important. It’s protected in the Constitution and we need to start paying more attention to it, not just give lip-service to it every couple years for elections.