by J.D. Tuccille
March 15, 1997

The King’s Men

There’s an old saying: “He who takes the king’s coin becomes the king’s man.” Simply put, it means that no matter what you intend, no matter what legalistic lines are drawn, once you are dependent on the lawmakers and bureaucrats, the state owns a piece of your ass. Among the growing ranks to whom this statement applies, American broadcasters rank rather prominently — and President Clinton wants to bite off another piece.

Of course, Clinton didn’t exactly say “bend over and slather on the barbecue sauce.” Nope. He knows his job too well for that. In the fine tradition of political leaders worldwide, Bubba couches his power grab in terms of the national interest and public spirit. Speaking as the next-generation technology of high-definition television looms on the TV networks’ personal radar, Clinton said, “[To] help free our democracy from the grip of big money .... I believe broadcasters who receive digital licenses should provide free air time for candidates, and I believe the FCC should act to require free air time for candidates.”

Uh huh. The fund-raising scandal must be cutting just a bit close, don’t you think?

Broadcasters are — rightfully — screaming about this latest development, and the ACLU and other free-speech advocates have joined them. They argue that radio and TV stations didn’t sign-on to be legally mandated billboards for favored politicians.

This isn’t a new problem. In his book, Freedom, Technology, and the First Amendment, Jonathan Emord describes how American “progressives” of the 1920s made an end-run around traditional private property and free speech protections. The progressives of the era considered individualism and personal liberty to be relics of the past — the future lay with the power of the benevolent state. An independent, unregulated media could serve only to delay glorious destiny.

But protections for print media were too well-entrenched and hard-fought to be easily circumvented — H.L. Mencken reduced Boston’s bluenoses to laughingstock status with the big “Hatrack” anti-censorship case of 1926. The new medium of radio, though, was virgin territory, unfamiliar to judges and with few entrenched advocates of its own. There had been one court decision proclaiming a property right in a broadcast frequency, but one case against the tide of the progressive future ...

And that’s where our now-holy-writ doctrine of public airwaves came from. Not quite an immaculate conception, eh?

No, not quite. But ever since, the “public airwaves” have been regulated in the public interest — or in as publicly interesting a manner as can be managed by people who consider it their lives’ work to see that the wee minds of us hoi polloi aren’t polluted by unfiltered electronic unpleasantness.

And that’s why we now have a president extorting handouts for politicians from the broadcast media.

That’s what we’re talking about after all. Broadcasters have had “Royal Property” stamped on their butts ever since the feds proclaimed the airwaves to be public and the courts rolled over in confusion. The king has been a little more lenient in recent years than in the past — almost enough to let the networks think that they had free rein. But now the king is back for another taste, and he wants a direct payoff in the form of free airtime for him and his henchmen. Hell, it’s a lot cheaper to take what you want than to pay market value.

And why not? Broadcasters are using public property, after all, aren’t they?

Broadcasters aren’t blameless, though. Since the beginning, they’ve maneuvered for position by invoking the power of the FCC (and earlier, the Federal Radio Commission) against competitors and upstarts. They found it easier to wield the federal writ as a blunt instrument than to compete in the open marketplace, so they tattled on rules breakers and did their best to shut the little guys out of the scene by wheedling friendly policy out of congress and the FCC (as of 1980, nobody can broadcast at less than 100 watts in the continental U.S.).

Maybe we could say that the result is justice — they took the king’s coin, and now the king is making it clear whose men they are. But we have to live with the results, too. And the results include a broadcast media used at the discretion of the politicians, in ways that we would never tolerate if applied to newspapers or magazines.

And broadcast is now dominant. Most Americans now receive their information from television. TV and radio stations now far outnumber newspapers. And would-be censors point to broadcast as a model for regulating the Internet.

In a way, the regulators of the 1920s were progressive — they foresaw the explosion of brodcast media in the years to come, and sought to leave free-speech protection as a vestigial remnant for the coming museum of print.

They made broadcasters take the king’s coin, and now their heirs want their money’s worth.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.