R.I.P. Bill Monroe, a First Amendment Champion

Bill Monroe, who was moderator for NBC’s Meet the Press for about 10 years, has died at 90. The Washington Post does a fine job with his long career, from his pro-civil-rights journalism in Lousiana in the 1950s to his years with NBC and Meet the Press.  

I want to draw attention to his longtime advocacy of extending the First Amendment to broadcasting. Actually, I’m sure he thought that the First Amendment did cover all forms of the news media — but he knew that Congress and the courts didn’t see it that way, so he wanted an explicit amendment to make that clear. Because his articles on this topic were published in the pre-Internet Dark Ages (yes, children, there are great ideas not online), I can’t link to any of them. 

He spoke at the Cato Institute in 1984 on the topic:

The First Amendment sets up a clear-cut independence of press from government as the journalistic principle most vital to the American people.  But the existing regulatory approach to broadcasting offers exactly the opposite formula:  government guidance and government rules to protect the American people from independent journalism. The First Amendment idea and the regulation idea are mortal enemies.

And in 2007 he briefly reprised the argument in the letters column of the Washington Post, concluding:

Broadcasters are also open to government pressure through the Federal Communications Commission, whose members are appointed by the president. Newspapers are specifically protected against government interference by the granite wall known as the First Amendment.

When the present form of broadcast regulation was set up early in the previous century, nobody understood what powerful instruments of news and information would evolve from the primitive radio stations of that day. Now that we do understand it, we can repair that historic mistake. We can extend the clear, stirring language of the First Amendment to equal protection for freedom of the electronic media. The problem of allocating broadcast licenses does not have to cost the American people the benefit of free broadcasting.

R.I.P.