Friday, June 29, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

The Hill has a piece on largely a procedural/symbolic vote on the Fairness Doctrine: Fairness Doctrine hammered 309-115. This is in the context of some talk by some members of the Congress about possible reviving the Fairness Doctrine. For example:

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on Tuesday that the government should revive the Fairness Doctrine, a policy crafted in 1929 that required broadcasters to balance political content with different points of view.

“It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine,” he said. “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.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, said this week that she would review the constitutional and legal issues involved in re-establishing the doctrine.

Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nominee, also said recently that the Fairness Doctrine should return.

There are numerous problems with the so-called Fairness Doctrine, not the least of which is that there aren’t just two sides to every story, but rather multiple ones. This entire discussion is framed within the idea that there is the Democratic/Liberal side and the Republican/Conservative side and that that somehow encompasses all there is to say on a given issue. That is simply not the case.

Beyond that, however, the bottom line of the Fairness Doctrine is that it requires government regulation of the content of broadcasts, as someone has to determine if the content of radio broadcasts is, indeed, “fair.” To me, such regulation is blatantly unconstitutional and undemocratic–it simply is not the purview of bureaucrats to sit in judgment over what should, and should not, be broadcast–especially in terms of political speech.

Further, when it comes to the Congress debating and deciding on this issue, the bottom line isn’t about fairness or even free speech: Democrats don’t like the fact that AM-based talk radio is dominated by conservative commentators and Republicans like it. As such, most positions on the Hill are dictated by those facts, not by principle. That is not an environment in which good policy is likely to emerge, assuming that such is possible in this case (and I do not).

More evidence that this is about nothing more than conservative dominance of talk radio: I don’t hear any discussion of making broadcast TV “balanced” (and they are regulated by the FCC as well). Heck, if all we want is to make sure that “both” sides are heard, why aren’t we talking about fairness in print, cable and on the internet?

Really, Durbin and his “old-fashioned attitude” isn’t about citizens getting all the requisite information needed to make good decisions, it is about using the power of the federal government to try and force people to hear what Durbin wants them to hear. And note that I say “try”–a new Fairness Doctrine might result in a radio station carrying Rush Limbaugh to carry Al Franken as well, for example, but do we really think that the Limbaugh listener is then going to listen to Franken, or vice versa? And, for that matter, should either Limbaugh or Franken really be considered serious education on the issues of the day?

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the citizen to inform themselves from the panoply of available sources of said information. And there is no avoiding the fact that most citizens will gravitate towards sources of information that they find the most palatable–and that means sources that are ideologically agreeable. Do I wish that citizens would sample a wider array of sources of information before forming hardened opinions? Yes, I would. However, is it the job of the government to try and force that issue? No, it most decidedly is not.

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6 Responses to “On the Fairness Doctrine”

  1. Jan Says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about fairness lately, although not the fairness doctrine, per se. It seems to me that fairness is often in the eye of the beholder and that, in reality, life is not fair. It never has been and it never will be.

  2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    What is fair anyway? You heard the weirdo…

  3. CPT D Says:

    I think the idea of the fairness doctrine coming back is probably rooted in the deep polarization of America. You state that there are more than 2 sides (conservative/liberal) to an issue, and ideally (theoretically) that’s true, and I would argue SHOULD be true. But in practicality, it seems to me that Americans are increasingly choosing sides and conforming to what are perceived to be those two ideologies more than anything. For good or for bad I think people are choosing sides, digging in, and staying there. I know a frightful number of people who vote on party and not priciple, not so much because they agree with everything their party says, but because they hate and are afraid of the other.

    Were it not so, and were people on both sides not afraid of the other and concerned that the other wasn’t playing by the rules, we wouldn’t be talking about fairness doctrine at all.

    I guess there may be more than 2 sides to an issue, but it seems anymore that there are only 2 that matter. . .

  4. Nancy Irving Says:

    Not that I necessarily disagree, but broadcast media are unlike, say, the internet in that the number of outlets is limited.

    Anyone can start up a blog, but only a few can buy a radio frequency.

    Thus no one needs to be *given* equal time on the internet.

  5. Ken Mabry Says:

    Actually what you buy is not the radio frequency, but the right to broadcast on that frequency. The license granted by the FCC to broadcast in the public interest.

    The problem with that is that “public interest” broadcasts are monumentally boaring. As a result most stations carry any public discussion programming in the wee hours of the weekend. That way ratings aren’t effected.

    Then there’s the fact that it cost big bucks to run a radio station. That revenue is acquired by the selling of time to advertisers who will not advertise on a station that has no listners.

    Guys like Limbaugh and Hannity pull in ratings. Modest but steady enough to deliver the advertisers. Apparently the Air America types did not.

  6. Ken Mabry Says:

    Then too. Broadcast and TV have what they call a public file required by law. It is detailed information on what that station did over a years time advance the community they are licensed to serve on the public airways.

    “responsible parties” can view that file. If they decide the station has not lived up to it’s responsibility to operate in the public interest then those parties can challenge the station license. Perhaps even acquire that license to operate in the public interest. However you define public interest.

    But you must have either deep pockets or good account executives to sell the content of your station if you hope to stay in business.

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