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Originally published November 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 26, 2007 at 3:35 PM

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The proper imbalance

Newspapers and commercial broadcast stations are in the unusual position of being both profit-making organizations and unelected guardians...

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Newspapers and commercial broadcast stations are in the unusual position of being both profit-making organizations and unelected guardians of the public trust. But the only tools used to encourage responsible news coverage are the blunt instruments of FCC regulations and market forces.

For radio and TV stations, the obligation to serve the public is legally enforceable, since public airwaves are allocated by the FCC, which can set rules about the amount of programming devoted to news, local content and diversity of opinion. Indeed, at the FCC hearings in Seattle, several speakers argued for stronger regulations on broadcast media.

For print media, regulations are nonexistent. Nothing but market forces prevent a newspaper from publishing biased views. However, FCC cross-ownership rules make it less likely that extreme views will dominate. Accordingly, at the recent FCC hearing, numerous speakers appealed for a continuation of strict media cross-ownership rules.

Yet there is no legalistic way for the FCC to guarantee an equitably balanced diversity of opinions. There will always be minority opinions suppressed by society — sometimes for bad reasons (e.g., lack of money), but often for good reasons. If the media gave equal access for all points of view, then it would give equal space to deniers of the Holocaust (or global warming, or the theory of evolution) as to its affirmers.

In short, "balanced" shouldn't mean "equal access for all views."

But public opinion evolves, and sometimes viewpoints that were once on the fringe become mainstream. Not until the 1960s did civil rights become mainstream. Perhaps the media should now be giving more voice to the issue of Palestinian rights, or the dangers of Islamo-fascism, or the arguments for impeachment, or the desirability of school vouchers, or the immorality of the war in Iraq.

The active jockeying for access by competing groups is the lifeblood of democracy.

Aggrieved minorities have the right to protest if they believe that their views are unfairly suppressed by editors and owners of media outlets. Like the rest of society, the media are prone to support positions that are later seen to be unjust.

Donald A. Smith of Bellevue is a Democratic Precinct Committee officer and activist for MoveOn and Democracy for America.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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