Protecting the “Public Interest”

This latest article concerning the FCC’s media-ownership rules further highlights the problems with government appointees deciding what is in the public’s interest.

Early in the 1900’s, the federal government decided it was wise to regulate the broadcast spectrum in the name of “the public interest, cfcc_logoonvenience, or necessity.” It did so by heaping several regulations on broadcasters — ranging from the misnamed “fairness doctrine” to children’s programming requirements to guidelines concerning “diversity” and “localism.”

The questionable justification for this regulation has been the scarcity of broadcast frequencies. Because the number of broadcast frequencies is scarce, it was argued that they must be allocated and regulated with the “public interest” in mind — preventing the medium from being dominated by the personal interests of the private broadcast station owners (and many argue that this “chills” the free speech rights of broadcasters).

The aforementioned article includes the views of Michael Copps, one FCC commissioner, on the state of broadcasting and its public interest role. His views are exemplified in the following passage:

… Copps said that there was less diversity, competition, and localism because the “tsunami of consolidation” had eroded the underpinnings of all three, thanks in part of sloppy FCC oversight. Copps warned against putting too much stock in the doom and gloom scenarios about the health of TV and newspapers, suggesting that trying to “save” the media should not translate to a lighter re-regulatory hand. … He also said that there were many broadcasters out there who continue to do an incredible job of serving the public interest, but that the aforementioned tsunami combined with government shortfalls had made them less captains of their own fate and more victims of Wall Street expectations. Copps noted that the FCC should go ahead with decisions on existing proceedings on boosting minority and women ownership, localism, and tightening up the license renewal process rather than rolling them up into what would, of necessity, be a protracted rule review.

Copps’ comments reflect a common belief among many government regulators. The general belief on the part of many regulators is that the public is unable to chose for itself in a free market what is in its interest.

They err in one respect when they start off by assuming that individuals in a society have some sort of uniform set of interests. Isaiah Berlin noted the fallacy in this when he wrote that “human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.”

The regulators err in another respect when they assume that wise government bureaucrats can successfully decide for the public what is in their interest. This same point could be used to criticize government attempts to steer or “rescue” the economy.

Invariably, what such regulators end up doing is substituting either their own interests or their misguided views of the communal “public interest” for the actual individual interests of members of the public. Leaving the public to a large extent free to choose on their own through the market would do more to promote their interests than any edict from an elite group in government.

* Note: I’ve written previously on FCC bureaucrats here, and I’m currently writing my master’s thesis on a similar subject.

4 Responses to Protecting the “Public Interest”

  1. […] (More on the FCC’s dubious role in regulating communications in the name of the supposed “public interest”  here, here and here.) […]

  2. […] airwave content — even political content — all in the name of the nebulous “public interest.” There’s no reason to doubt it wouldn’t eventually like to do the same with the […]

  3. […] history of such communications regulation under the auspices of upholding the “public interest” has been intrusive and abusive. But the regulators are persistent. They’ve found […]

  4. […] Twenty-five years ago today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted an order effectively repealing the infamous broadcast “Fairness Doctrine.” The Doctrine required that broadcast licensees had to present reasonable opportunity for the airing of contesting points of view when covering issues of public importance to their community. For nearly 40 years, it was upheld in the name of protecting the ‘public interest.’ […]

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