FCC's Fowler: free-market `ideologue' or free-speech champion?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.''