Ever hear of the Fairness Doctrine? It was repealed 20 years ago, so I sure as hell hadn’t until I read Tim Rutten of the L.A. Times’ editorial in The Oregonian last week. He correctly describes it as “a regulation that requires [radio] broadcasters to air both sides of an issue,” should a radio program delve into politically controversial waters.
Let ’em say what they want
Ever hear of the Fairness Doctrine?
It was repealed 20 years ago, so I sure as hell hadn’t until I read Tim Rutten of the L.A. Times’ editorial in The Oregonian last week. He correctly describes it as “a regulation that requires [radio] broadcasters to air both sides of an issue,” should a radio program delve into politically controversial waters.
It was introduced in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the idea being that a limited amount of frequencies were getting rapidly snapped up by a growing radio station market, and the public (especially those who lived in more rural areas) had scarce sources for their news. Thus, the Fairness Doctrine held for 38 years until it was dissolved in 1987 among the proliferation of cable channels (making the scarcity argument obsolete) and Reagan’s deregulation frenzy.
And immediately since, it appears, people have been trying to bring it back. Congress tried to preemptively block the FCC’s decision in 1987, but the legislation was vetoed by President Reagan. Congress tried again in 1991, but Bush Sr. gave it another veto. Since then it has been a continuous topic of conversation in media-related discourse, and reinstatement bills have tried to flutter their way through Congress every few years, to little avail. Republicans actually pushed an amendment into a bill this June that prohibits the FCC from reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine, and it smoked through, 309-115.
Fans of reinstatement often trumpet the doctrine as a way to combat the domination of conservative viewpoints on talk show radio, which is regarded by some as a near-monopoly (Rutten points out that 90 percent of talk radio in the Bay Area has a conservative view). So as one might imagine, the issue has become split over party lines, with many Democrats advocating the return of the doctrine, and virtually all Republicans opposing it.
The lefties in favor of the Fairness Doctrine have used an array of buzzword-loaded phrases to build support for their case. “I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they’re in a better position to make a decision,” Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said before the House vote this June.
Big names like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) have weighed in heavy support as well. Steve Rendell, a senior analyst of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), wrote in an article for CommonDreams.com, a progressive news source, urging reinstatement: “…movement conservatives and Republican partisans [are] using the publicly owned airwaves as a political megaphone-one that goes largely unanswered by any regular opposing perspective. It’s an imbalance that begs for a remedy.”
Advocates have a fondness for the 1969 Supreme Court case Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, which upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine. An excerpt of the decision goes: “There is no sanctuary in the First Amendment for unlimited private censorship operating in a medium not open to all.” (Actually, yes there is. It’s under the part about making no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.)
It all sounds nice to have a rule that will strike fear into the hearts of evil corporations when they can no longer broadcast Rush Limbaugh to brainwash poor, well-meaning Americans, but the concept and practice of the Fairness Doctrine is out of whack to the point of scariness.
How do you regulate something like balance? Who gets to decide what “both sides” of the issue are? How does it get put into effect in today’s world?
And what kind of precedent would this doctrine set? Would “fairness” become enforceable by law? Maybe next, newspapers would have to present both sides of an issue when editorializing. What then, Bill Sizemore writes a regular op-ed in the Portland Mercury? (Actually, that sounds kind of amazing. Seriously. Nudge nudge, Big Willy.)
The Museum of Broadcast Communications tells us that when the doctrine was the law of the land, it had the effect of taking the edge off reporting more sensitive topics. “In order to avoid the requirement to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists simply avoided any coverage of some controversial issues.”
The Supreme Court noticed this when they revisited the doctrine in 1984 in FCC v. League of Woman’s Voters, and while they didn’t reverse their decision, they noted that the doctrine was “chilling speech,” and added that the constitutionality of it would be revisited if it did have “the net effect of reducing rather than enhancing speech.”
And yet people are convinced we need the doctrine back. The chances of pushing it into law while Bush is in office are virtually nil, but it remains, as the museum puts it, “just beneath the surface of concerns over broadcasting and cable-casting.” Expect to see it surface again, and hope to see it struck down in kind.
Forced equality is not equality at all. The Fairness Doctrine is eerily reminiscent of Harrison Bergeron, the Kurt Vonnegut story where in the future everybody’s strengths are weaknesses so that everybody is equal. We live in a world where there is so much information available to us, attempting to regulate its “bias” would be at best ineffective and at worst totalitarian.
David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the Democratic House Appropriations Committee, voted with Republicans to bar the FCC from reinstating the doctrine. “We ought to let right-wing talk radio go on as they do now,” he said during a June 28 debate. “Rush and Sean are just about as important in the scheme of things as Paris Hilton…I would hate to see them gain an ounce of credibility by being forced by a government agency or anybody else to moderate their views enough that they might become modestly influential or respected.”
Let listeners make their own decisions. That sounds pretty fair to me.