Free speech and the FCC

Posted: Sep 16, 2003 12:00 AM

The Senate is expected this week to reject a new Federal Communications Commission rule expanding from 30 percent to 40 percent the number of households a single company can reach. Another FCC provision loosens the restraints in some markets on ownership of more than one local TV station. The House has voted overwhelmingly to overturn the rule. Senate approval will propel the measure restricting the FCC to President Bush's desk. Expect a veto, he says.

Hooray for that at least. The bill in question would keep electronic communications in a straitjacket that technology has made unfeasible and unwise. The pity is that a veto should be necessary for the right thing to get done.

The regulatory mentality somehow never dies. The supposition is that government possesses a wisdom far above individual wisdoms. The government knows what is best -- or, if not, it can find out.

Regulation was the hallmark of the '30s through the '60s: beneficent control exerted for the Good of All. In the '70s, the deficiencies of regulation became clearer and clearer, with respect to wage-price controls, energy and airlines. Control wasn't buying us happiness; it was creating distortions in economic endeavor. Political revolt ensued. The regulatory grip relaxed.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell proposed further to relax the grip. Last June 2, the FCC issued rules that would have taken effect this month if a federal appeals court had not stayed them. Now, the House and the Senate -- both controlled by Republicans of supposedly free-market bent -- are throwing up roadblocks.

There is something in all this of old Canute, the Viking king who, to demonstrate the limits of authoritarian government, took with him to the beach some of the more high-energy royalists at his court. There, before them, he commanded the tide to go back. Point made. The best-intentioned regulator deals with natural forces that to one degree or another, sooner or later, will have their way

Particular business interests affect to see the FCC rule as stifling competition and concentrating more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer companies. That would be about the opposite of what is intended. Powell sees technology, especially the Internet, as having already undermined concentration and control. Think back to when we had just three networks: Now that was concentration! Not so today. The complaint, likelier, is that viewers and readers are in the driver's seat, telling the content suppliers what they want.

What Powell wants is not fewer voices but more. "I think the answer," he told an interviewer, "is to power more devices and technology in the future so that there are so many sources, so much diversity that (concentration) is a moot issue."

The worry at that point will be fragmentation of the marketplace -- the disintegration in some degree of common authorities and sources. There will be no Walter Cronkites, in other words. No Jack Paars, no David Brinkleys or Dan Rathers to provide a common frame of reference. More and more, that is becoming the case even now. I can't remember the last time I looked into Dan Rather's masterful eyes. You can read news on the Internet within a few minutes of its happening. Who needs Dan?

The marketplace is a vast mystery, always working outside the sight of those who would regulate it, such as congressmen. So mysterious is this thing that officials blessed with a truly spacious vision -- the likes of Michael Powell -- are inclined just to shrug. They would let happen what happens, with due provision for constitutional rights and the rule of law.

Come to think of it, one of those rights embedded in the First Amendment -- the right of free speech -- is seemingly enjoying a heyday. The technology that Michael Powell celebrates has extended the varieties of speech and their reach in ways unimaginable even a decade ago.

Say what it wants, Congress doesn't run this particular show. And, just on present evidence, what a blessing that is!