WSJ – By Preston Padden………….
May 31, 2020 03:39 p.m. EDT
President Trump signed an executive order Thursday that would have the Federal Communications Commission judge decisions made by Twitter, Facebook and others to moderate speech. Under Mr. Trump’s order, the FCC could revoke liability protection if a social-media platform hasn’t acted “in good faith.” The order amounts to a content review and is reminiscent of past restrictions on broadcast networks.
The Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949, required broadcasters to air opposing views on issues of public interest. The FCC determined whether broadcast speech was fair to both political parties. In the 1980s, conservative FCC Chairmen Mark Fowler and Dennis Patrick worked to repeal the doctrine, overcom-ing opposition in both parties, and succeeded in 1987.
White House staff, Mr. Fowler recalled in 2009, argued to President Reagan that “the only thing that really protects you from the savage-ness of the three net-works . . . is the Fairness Doctrine, and Fowler is proposing to repeal it.” But Messrs. Fowler and Patrick stood for principle, not poli-tics. In 1987 Mr. Patrick said, “We seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country’s inception.”
President Nixon was obsessed with the networks’ bias. In a 1972 White House memo, Nixon aide Pat Buchanan wrote: “Shall we acquiesce forever in left-wing control of communications media from which 50 percent to 70 percent of the American people derive their informa-tion and ideas about their national government? The interests of this country and the furtherance of the policies and ideas in which we believe demand that this monopoly, this ideological cartel, be broken up.”
Nixon retaliated against the networks by supporting FCC rules to restrict their airtime and ownership of programming. He directed the Justice Department to mirror the FCC rules, creating a double layer of restrictions.
Because Nixon taped his White House conversations, we don’t need to speculate about his motives. “Our gain is more important than the economic gain,” he said in 1971, brushing aside the legitimate complaints of program producers. “Our game here is solely political. . . . As far as screwing [the networks] is concerned, I’m very glad to do it.”
tIn Nixon’s railing against the liberal bias of the net-works, one can almost hear Mr. Trump railing against social-media companies. And the new executive order reads like the Buchanan memo. But what Nixon & Co. said behind closed doors, Mr. Trump says in public.
The bias was and is real. But the question is whether the First Amendment permits government leaders to judge private speech that irritates them. Mr. Trump’s defenders argue that he is only condition-ing online platforms’ “unique” protections. But most media enjoy some unique protection: copyright licenses for cable systems, “must carry” rights for broadcast stations. Condi-tioning key protections on compliance with a government content review would be censorship by a different name.
Mr. Padden is a communica-tions consultant who held executive positions at the Fox and ABC broadcast networks.