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Separation Anxiety

Perhaps Congress has come to realize that, if the FCC is allowed to further deregulate the broadcast and cable industries, as it has been instructed to do by the Congress itself and subsequently the courts, the government will lose its comfortable grip on the major media. Last week, a majority of the Senate Commerce Committee, including four Republicans, dispensed with the deference generally accorded the FCC's decisions and told the agency to keep the restrictions of media ownership just as they are.

Lawmakers say they support ownership limits because they ensure that radio and TV stations offer local programming and a diversity of viewpoints. But we have always suspected a darker motive: that regulation, any regulation, gives government officials a means to control the electronic media.

Ironically, the very people who complain that news organizations are waving the flag and carrying the government's canteen in the Iraq war are the same ones who want more regulatory control, not less, over those same organizations. That route leads to the image that continues to stick in our minds, and our craw, of the network news presidents grilled by Congress following the 2000 election. Just imagine Arthur Sulzberger or Donald Graham agreeing to a government flogging over their news coverage. Government intimidation of the press is what people from other countries flee from
when they come here.

Just maybe, if the big media companies didn't have to constantly worry about the effects of their decisions on various bureaucrats and elected officials, they could be a tad more critical of the government that currently holds the leash. Did the major news organizations go soft in their coverage of the war in Iraq as some quid pro quo for ownership deregulation? We don't think so. But, so long as the major news media are under the thumb of various government agencies, the clouds of suspicion will always be there.

Did the industry cave on the V-chip to earn brownie points in Washington? Have some station owners paid off indecency fines as a cost of business or an investment in future goodwill? You better believe it. That is conduct unbecoming a free press. But of course, the electronic press isn't free. That fundamental inequity remains at the root of our support for less government control, even if the result is far from ideal.

Deregulation clearly has its downside: Bigger companies can be bullies as well as protectors; jobs are lost. But no change comes without cost, and all freedom entails the risk that it will be abused.

We are not calling for an end to the spectrum regulations that guard against interference and allow companies to safely navigate the seas of waves and wires. We are also solidly behind rules that prevent companies from abusing their size and power in the marketplace. The first is the true province of the FCC; the second should be that of the Justice Department.

If antitrust laws need to be strengthened or better enforced to guard against monopolistic practices, so be it. But the electronic media should be as free as the print press. Period.