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Free speech on TV - but for whom?

Ease federal regulation of radio and television, a growing number of newspaper and broadcasting executives are urging us. Strike a telling blow against government censorship.

It is an alluring proposal, civil libertarians would agree, one that would move broadcasters closer to the protections of the First Amendment which have kept newspapers free of regulation.

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Yet it could have an effect no civil libertarian deserving of the name would support. It could very well further narrow the already appallingly narrow range of information and opinion being broadcast. For what the executives are urging is abolition of the ''fairness doctrine'' that requires broadcasters to give equal time to competing political candidates and, when airing controversial issues, to competing views.

The executives say it's a matter of free speech - and it is. But free speech for whose benefit?

Abolishing the fairness doctrine certainly would not benefit the mass of people, who are promised the broadest possible diversity of views by the First Amendment. The benefit would go instead to the privileged few who hold the necessarily limited number of broadcasting licenses available and who of course are seeking to reduce the diversity of their output.

Benefiting as well would be major newspaper executives. They have joined the broadcasters' efforts for fear that the fairness doctrine will be imposed on their rapidly expanding cable TV operations, through which the contents of their publications are displayed on subscribers' home computer screens.

The executives naturally claim they are seeking to benefit us all. They contend that the expansion of cable TV will guarantee a wide diversity in broadcasting without the need for continued federal regulation. Why, the executives ask indignantly, should broadcasters freed of regulation act any differently from their regulation-free newspaper brethren? By that, they mean to say broadcasters would be fair and dedicated to the cause of free speech.

You may have noticed, however, at least a few newspapers that seem to lack such dedication, and perhaps more than a few radio and TV stations.

It is indeed likely that broadcasting stations freed of the fairness doctrine would approach coverage of public affairs in much the same manner as newspapers. But given the nature of their industry, it is also likely they would act in the same often irresponsible ways as did newspapers when, like TV stations today, they were the primary sources of political information and opinion.

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True enough, candidates in those pre-television days did much face-to-face campaigning. But even so, the voters' major exposure to most of them came through newspapers. Many voters knew only what they read in the papers, and so what the papers said - or didn't say - about particular candidates frequently determined the candidates' fate.

But newspapers lost their commanding political voice when candidates and voters turned to television. Most papers began balancing their political coverage, in part to meet the competition of the balanced coverage TV was required by law to provide.

Considering television's overwhelming dominance of the main channels of communication today, it is improbable that there would be competitive pressures strong enough to similarly force fairness on TV should broadcasting be freed of legal pressures. That would leave it to the initiative of the broadcasters and, as history has demonstrated, fairness is not a concern of those who control the broadcasting industry. Their concern has been the pursuit of profit - not the dissemination of ideas but the selling of goods and services primarily through the vehicle of entertainment programs.

If broadcasters considered it profitable to provide broad and balanced political coverage, they no doubt would provide it on their own. But as their attempt to abolish the fairness doctrine shows, they do not consider it profitable and surely would not provide it, whatever they may claim.

The fairness doctrine is only minimally effective, certainly, and only laxly enforced by a Federal Communications Commission whose views are similar to those of the industry it supposedly regulates. But without such a regulation, there would be virtually no pressure at all for fairness in broadcasting.

So, contradictory though it might seem to those opposed to government control of expression, retaining the fairness doctrine actually would help protect the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Not free speech just for newspapers and radio and television stations, but free speech for all of us.

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