Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Unique Nature of Communications Regulation: Evidence and Implications for Communications Policy Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Unique Nature of Communications Regulation: Evidence and Implications for Communications Policy Analysis

Article excerpt

The first section of this article outlines these fundamental differences, through an examination of policy decisions and institutional analyses of the Federal Communications Commission. This section also illustrates how these points of distinction pose important challenges for communications policy analysis. The second section draws upon individual cases to demonstrate that policymakers often fail to sufficiently account for these differences in their analytic processes. Consequently, policy decisions emerge from what is described here as an "analytic asymmetry." The final section outlines recommendations for developing a more symmetrical approach to communications policy analysis.

The Unique Nature of Communications Regulation

The fundamental differences between communications regulation and the regulation of other industries pose unique challenges to communications policy analysis. The key differences discussed in this section are: (a) the unique potential for social and political impact of FCC policy decisions; (b) the ambiguity surrounding the FCC's classification as an economic or a social regulatory agency; and (c) the potential overlap and interaction between economic and social concerns within individual policy decisions.

The Potential Social and Political Impact of FCC Decisions

The FCC is unique among regulatory agencies in the extent of its ability--and authority--to make decisions that can directly affect political and social beliefs and values that are central to the democratic process.(1) This is because the industries the FCC regulates have a unique capacity for social and political influence. Researchers have found evidence that the communications industries are capable of a variety of effects, including setting the public's political agenda (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), affecting political knowledge and political participation (Graber, 1984; Patterson, 1980), and even contributing to criminal and violent behavior (Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman, McCombs, & Roberts, 1978; Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, 1972). Journalism's common identification as the fourth branch of government provides a strong indication of the communications industry's unique influence potential, particularly in relation to other regulated industries.

Other regulatory agencies share the FCC's authority to regulate speech. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission restricts the sharing of information regarding stock transactions, and the Federal Trade Commission restricts deceptive advertising (see Sunstein, 1993). However, unlike the FCC, the type of speech regulated by these agencies has little potential to affect those political and social attitudes and beliefs that are central to the democratic process. Consider, for instance, a Commission policy such as the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance (Federal Communications Commission, 1949). The FCC eventually concluded that the policy had a "chilling effect" on broadcasters (Federal Communications Commission, 1985; Syracuse Peace Council v. Federal Communications Commission, 1989). According to the Commission, the burden of meeting Fairness Doctrine requirements compelled broadcasters to present fewer discussions of controversial public issues. If the policy did indeed have such an effect, then there was a potential ripple effect on the political knowledge, public opinion, and voting behavior of the television audience, which would be receiving less information regarding controversial public issues than before. This information flow is fundamental to the formation of the social and political views that guide political behavior (Entman, 1989).

Or, consider less content-directed regulation, such as ownership restrictions. Historically, the FCC and Congress have been concerned with limiting ownership concentration within local markets, as well as nationally (Federal Communications Commission, 1964; Federal Communications Commission, 1970; Telecommunications Act, 1996). …

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