Washington — When the presidential candidates get to stumping the country, the American people deserve from television and radio a quality of service the networks have never rendered in the past.
The public pays for it; we ought to get it.
The government provides the airwaves free of charge, and the voters pay the bill and permit TV and radion to use them for commercial purposes.
The networks get more advantage than free airwaves. Since the government finances presidential campaigns, it is the taxpayers who pay the stations fro the candidate's commercials -- and that is a lot of money which TV and radio get from us.
For the government to provide the airwaves for the electronic media is as though it bought all tne newprint for the newspapers and gave it to them.
Fuller TV and radio coverage of the campaign will be greatly needed this year. We know little about the substance of Ronald Reagan's views and the quality and depth of his thinking. And many feel thet know little about President Carter's because his positions on issues have changed so much since he was elected.
Apparently the networks will provide time for debates without cost to the candidates. But debates are a particular form of political oratory and the networks ought to provide something more.
I suggest that TV and radio owe it to the American people -- who do so much gratuitously for them -- to provide free prime time for six principal speeches by the major candidates. Let the parties pay for the commercials which are usually misleading and uninformative, and then let the networks give prime time for a minimum of six presentations in depth.
TO enable the networks to do what they ought to do, the Federal Communications Commission would have to suspend -- I would favor repeal -- the rule which provides that if a station gives time to one political candidate, it must give equal time to all of his opponents.
This provision compels the stations to deny time to the principal candidates for president. It means that if a network gave time to Carter and Reagan, it would have to give equal time to the Libertarian candidate, the Vegetarian candidate, the Communist candidate and others who are not seriously in the race.
Shouldn't the electronic media have the same First Amendment freedom of judgement as to what they shall cover, just as newspapers have the constitutional right to decide what they print and what they don't print?
William S. Paley, chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, put it this way in a recent speech: "It's strange, to say the least, that the medium on which the public places most reliance for news [TV and radio] is the medium with the least First Amendment protection. Yet Congress has resolutely refused to confront that fact, never seriously considering that broadcast journalism should have the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by the print media."
I see no more reason why the FCC should tell the networks which candidates they shall air any more than it should tell the newspapers the texts of which speeches they shall print.
The premise on which the FCC originally decided to impose the "equal time" rule on TV and radio was that theree was only a limited number of stations on the broadcast spectrum while there was no limit on the number of newspapers which could compete.
That basis for justifying the "equal time" ruling for TV and radio no longer exists. It has, Mr. Paley notes, been ruled out by events.
In 1927 there were only 677 broadcasting stations in the US and 1,949 daily newspapers.
Today there are 9,774 broadcasting stations and only 1,756 daily newspapers.
Congress ought to give TV and radio the freedom to do a better job for the nation's voters in this 1980 campaign from which we need to get a better insight into two familiar but relatively unknown candidates. If the networks abuse their freedom, they'll hear from their viewers.