Once again, a brave -- or crazy -- challenge to television

January 16, 1996|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- There is something about becoming

chairman of the Federal Communications Commission that turns men into raving patriots. Some would say raving lunatics.

There is a pattern to this. Someone nobody ever heard of gets the job for reasons obscure to most, takes one look at the impact of communications, particularly television, on the life of the body politic, and cries ''Wolf!'' He is then driven out of town.

That is what happened with Newton Minow, who coined the phrase ''vast wasteland'' to describe network television programming, and to Nicholas Johnson, who cried that the wolf was ''monopoly.''

The current FCC chairman is a 47-year-old Washington lawyer named Reed Hundt, who earned the job by being smart enough to go to school with both President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

'The public interest'

Mr. Hundt's problem is exactly the same as that of his controversial predecessors: The FCC is supposed to regulate and otherwise muscle media moguls into broadcasting in ''the public interest,'' but those moguls and their wards, the owners of local television and radio stations, are the group most feared by members of Congress and other professional politicians.

Mr. Hundt, appointed by President Clinton two years ago, has upset the moguls by implementing or suggesting rules that would do such radical things as forcing the moguls to pay for the use of the new airwaves created by new technologies, giving political candidates some free time on the air, and requiring a couple of hours of bloodless children's programming each week.

Actually, whether you consider him a patriot or a lunatic, Mr. Hundt is not a radical. He is a reactionary trying to roll back the clock to the days when media moguls and other free-marketeers were thought to have some obligation to the public, which at least theoretically owns those airwaves and the rest of the sky.

Now, though, if the Congress had its way, not only Mr. Hundt but the FCC itself would be eliminated.

TV nationally would then be handed over to the tender mercies of General Electric, Westinghouse, Disney, Rupert Murdoch and John Malone, a guy in Denver who controls a great deal of programming because he controls many cable systems, the theaters along the information highway.

Man of many enemies

Mr. Hundt, a man of many enemies, not all of them ideological, is now on a speaking tour to save his job, or perhaps just to have his say before it is taken away from him. He is worth listening to; this is some of what he has said in recent weeks:

* ''The public benefits that we should guarantee are those that private competition doesn't necessarily give us. This goal leads us inevitably to redefining the public-interest standards by which broadcasters get free use of the public airwaves.''

* ''The cost of TV time-buys makes fund-raising an enormous entry barrier for candidates for public office . . . a continuous threat to the integrity of our political institutions, and a principal cause of the erosion of public respect for public service.''

* ''The average House candidate in a contested election spent $250,000 in media expenses. That translates to needing to raise $2,500 a week every week. . . . The figure for senators is $7,500 a week.''

* ''When the FCC repealed public-interest guidelines in the 1980s, educational programming for children provided by the three historic networks dropped -- from more than 11 hours per week in 1980 to about 4 1/2 hours in 1983 and to fewer than two hours a week in 1990. . . . Internally, [the FCC] treated one-half hour a week as an adequate amount of children's programming to justify license renewal [for television stations.]''

Cost of campaigns

Mr. Hundt has called for reinstatement of children's programming guidelines. On the issue of campaign funds, he has proposed using FCC revenues to provide matching funds to lower the cost of media campaigns, along with incentives to stations offering candidates free time in blocks larger than 30 seconds.

A former chief economist of the FCC and a former Hundt adviser, Thomas Hazlett, says of the chairman:

''At best, Reed Hundt is a very powerful voice for competition; at worst he is central casting's answer to a runaway bureaucrat. His downfall is that he tends to personalize things too much.''

Whatever we think of Mr. Hundt's style or ideas, we had better listen to him now, because odds are that he is not going to be around much longer -- not with both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and most of the broadcasting industry trying to run him out of Washington. Some things never change.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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