FCC's Fowler: free-market `ideologue' or free-speech champion?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AT the far end of Mark Fowler's spacious office hangs a Norman Rockwell print of a man speaking up at a town meeting. It is titled ``Freedom of Speech.'' On the bookshelf near his desk sits a navy blue worker's cap adorned with the red star of the People's Republic of China. ``Any of his staff who come up with collectivist ideas have to wear that [cap] for a day,'' an FCC official says.

Relaxing in an easy chair between these two powerful symbols is President Reagan's appointed overseer of the nation's broadcast media.

As chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Mr. Fowler is a vigorous a proponent of First Amendment freedoms and a stern critic of government interference in the marketplace.

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He is also responsible for one of the most massive deregulation efforts ever mounted in Washington -- one that is shaking the broadcast industry from top to bottom.

``That particular freedom -- the right to speak freely and have a free press -- is to me the core freedom that underlies and undergirds all of our other freedoms,'' the chairman of the FCC says.

``I don't see any role for the government in a democratic society in controlling the information flows,'' he adds.

Genial and gracious, the former broadcaster-turned-lawyer hardly looks like the ``mad monk of deregulation,'' as some opponents brand him. In fact, he explains his strategy very simply: His goal is to return broadcasting to ``the print model.'' The government does not control the content of the nation's newspapers -- even though newspapers use public highways for their trucks and public street corners for their distribution, he argues. Nor, he says, should government control broadcasters -- except for enforcing the technical regulations that keep two stations from broadcasting on the same frequency.

It's a policy calculated to enrage his critics.

``The man is a total ideologue,'' fumes Samuel A. Simon, executive director of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a nonprofit watchdog group designed to look after the interests of residential telecommunications users. Mr. Simon worries that the Communications Act of 1934 -- the law that sets forth the broadcaster's duty to serve the public interest in return for exclusive rights to a piece of the broadcast spectrum -- is being gutted. ``There's absolutely no intent on [Fowler's] part to enforce the '34 act in any meaningful way,'' he says.

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, agrees. ``What's so sad is that all of a sudden that public-interest standard doesn't really mean anything anymore,'' she says. She insists that the limitation of the broadcast spectrum -- the fact that not everyone who wants to speak has the opportunity to do so -- makes it essential to regulate broadcast content.

Fowler, taking the criticism in stride, plunges ahead. In his four years at the helm, his agency has reviewed 90 percent of its 900 or so mass-media rules, abandoning or streamlining great numbers of them. Under his chairmanship, the FCC has:

Instituted ``post-card renewals,'' allowing broadcasters to renew licenses without reexamination by the FCC.

Reduced by 36 percent the hours broadcasters must spend on paper work.

Allowed existing broadcasters to venture into new technologies, such as multichannel multipoint distribution service (MMDS) and direct broadcast satellite (DBS), and allowed some daytime-only stations to operate after dark.

Transformed the old ``rule of sevens'' -- which prohibited a single owner from having more than 7 AM radio stations, 7 FM radio stations, and 7 television stations -- into the ``rule of twelves.'' Raising the numbers for each category has permitted media acquisitions, such as the pending purchase of the American Broadcasting Companies by Capital Cities and the proposed takeover of Metromedia by controversial Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch.

Are such takeovers healthy? Although Fowler says it would not be ``proper'' for him to express views on proposals yet to be reviewed by the FCC, he says ``fourth networks are very good things for people, even though the existing networks might not like that.'' In that context, he says, it will be ``interesting to see -- presuming we approve Mr. Murdoch's application -- what he does.'' Speaking of ``people like Rupert Murdoch . . . who want to come in and challenge and provide new choices,'' Fowler notes ``that is something we certainly want to encourage as a generic matter.''

Not surprisingly, Fowler's zeal has sometimes landed him in trouble with Congress. The ``rule of twelves,'' as finally passed, was a compromise: Fowler had wanted all ownership restrictions to disappear after five years, to smooth the way for the formation of new networks.

And he was roundly beaten last year on the issue of proposed changes in the financial interest and syndication rules. Fowler's commission had sought to allow the networks to compete directly with Hollywood in producing, distributing, and owning their own programs. Both sides argued along ``public interest'' lines, Hollywood insisting that the changes would increase the monopolistic control of the networks, and the networks responding that the change would increase diversity of programming.

Congress finally voted in favor of Hollywood, reflecting what one Senate aide calls ``a substantial antinetwork sentiment on the Hill.'' These and other signals led Broadcasting magazine to note in a recent article that ``[Fowler's] control at the commission may be slipping'' and that Congress is increasingly ``sharing the telecommunications policymaking driver's seat.''

Yet even Fowler's critics sometimes applaud his general drift toward deregulation. Henry Rivera, one of the FCC's five commissioners, notes Fowler has done ``an excellent job'' in acting on his philosophy. Mr. Rivera, however, takes issue with him in areas such as children's television and minority issues where the ``marketplace approach'' simply doesn't work. Although Rivera describes himself as a ``deregulator,'' he notes that ``I am not interested in deregulating into a vacuum.''

``He's absolutely right as far as [not controlling] content is concerned,'' says Bruce Christensen, president of the Public Broadcasting Service. Nevertheless, Mr. Christensen faults Fowler for cutting into the ``must carry'' rules that require a cable operator to carry all the broadcast signals (including those of PBS member stations) in its area.

But Fowler, who keeps a chessboard set up on his end table, plans to continue his game plan throughout the rest of his term -- which ends in June 1986, and which he has ``toyed with the idea'' of seeking to have renewed. One of his next targets: the requirement that stations give equal time to all bona fide candidates for public office, however small their following.

``When we liberalized the equal-time laws [in 1983] to permit broadcasters to sponsor debates, we had more debates in 1984 among presidential candidates then we've had in decades,'' Fowler says.

He also has his eye on the ``fairness doctrine,'' which requires broadcasters to address ``controversial issues of public importance'' in a balanced way. Unlike newspapers, which have no such requirement, broadcasters can be legally challenged if their presentations are one-sided. The result, Fowler says, is a set of laws that ``discourages broadcasters from tackling controversial issues.''

Few people think the fairness doctrine will be abolished by Congress. Fowler, in fact, appears to be looking to the Supreme Court -- citing in particular two footnotes in a decision last July (FCC v. League of Women Voters of California) that invited someone to bring forward a case involving the fairness doctrine. ``Were it to be shown by the [FCC] that the fairness doctrine `has the effect of reducing rather than enhancing' speech, we would then be forced to reconsider the constitutional basis'' of that regulation, the court wrote.

In several areas, however, Fowler modifies his get-the-government-out views. One is public television. ``I support it,'' he says firmly. ``It does add a dimension to our society that perhaps the marketplace approach can't add,'' he explains.

He is also a firm supporter of the need for children's programming -- which he admits is one of the ``hard issues'' facing those who want to deregulate. His critics contend, however, that his commission has done little to promote such programming.

Does he worry that a deregulated broadcast medium would become sensational and one-sided? ``The essence of a free press,'' he says, means that ``it may not always be fair'' -- although the history of newspapers suggests that ``generally you probably will get both free and fair.''

But, he adds, ``if I had to choose, I'd rather have free than fair.''

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