You may be hearing a lot in the near future about the fairness doctrine. It sounds like a great thing, by the title. Everyone wants to be fair, right?
Yet journalists on both right and left are up in arms about it. They claim it unfairly burdens media outlets. That it violates the First Amendment. That it is inherently UNfair. Newt Gingrich calls it “affirmative action for the left.” Others have stated it’s an attempt to destroy right-wing radio.
But Dian Feinstein and others, particularly supporters of the left-wing radio network Air America, have called it an attempt to bring fairness back to radio, a way to return the airwaves to the public rather than to the highest bidder. And the debate is starting to heat up.
What Is The Fairness Doctrine?
Decades ago, media looked very different. Newspapers were starting to lose readership to radio – both AM and FM. Television stations were broadcasting on a limited number of bands. There was no cable television, no satellite radio, and no Internet. In this mythical time, there was a real problem.
Because there were only three major networks on television, and because radio stations were competing for a very limited number of broadcast bandwidths, there was a real danger that some rich guy, a Rockefeller, say, would come along and monopolize them. To tame this new Wild West of the airwaves, the FCC was invented. They determined who would get licenses in each individual market to broadcast television and radio shows, and radio became listenable.
Journalists got together at the same time, and, in the interests of fairness, agreed to something called a Fairness Doctrine: that each station would take pains to show both sides of any issue. If an hour was devoted to the promotion of a political candidate, for instance, an equal amount of time must be devoted to his opponent.
Pretty quickly, the Doctrine became enshrined in legislative law and in the rules governing the FCC. You can still see it today.
Ronald Reagan was one of the early political targets of this rule – stations that wanted to show his movies like the immortal Bedtime for Bonzo, were afraid they’d be required to devote equal time to Jimmy Carter. Since two hours of seeing Jimmy Carter talk does not have the entertainment value of two hours of watching a chimpanzee make a monkey of the other candidate, few stations chose to air Reagan’s movies, even the less embarassing ones.
This is part of the reason Reagan stepped forward to help squash the Fairness Doctrine – but not all of it. In the early 1980s, cable television was beginning its takeover of the viewing audience. The Internet, too, though nascent, was growing into something very interesting (though it was mostly Usenet and bulletin board services at the time). Reagan, in one of the wisest decisions of his presidency, supported the 1987 decision by the FCC to remove the Fairness Doctrine, and vetoed Congress’s attempt to enshrine the FCC rule in legislation. George H.W. Bush repeated his actions in 1991. Only recently has it re-emerged in any serious way.
When it was instituted, the Fairness Doctrine was a function of scarcity – there were legitimately only a few places for mass media voices to be heard. Today, we have a very different world – our children’s silly websites have a chance of going viral and being seen by millions of viewers worldwide. There are hundreds of satellite radio stations and hundreds of cable stations, with space for tens of thousands more.
So why do more and more politicians and activists say we need the Fairness Doctrine back?
Well, the Fairness Doctrine as it’s being conceived of today will only affect AM radio. A couple of decades ago, experts thought that this part of your media world was disappearing. Articles in Time Magazine and the New York Times predicted that by the year 2000, there would be no broadcasters left who were interested in AM broadcasting at all.
Today, AM radio is thriving. Why? Because of a guy named Rush Limbaugh. Love him or hate him, he revitalized talk radio, which fits perfectly on the limited – and cheaper – power of the AM bandwidths. He started his radio show just before the inauguration of Bill Clinton, spent eight years as a vocal counterpoint to the President, and then – despite even more predictions that now AM would die because with Clinton out Limbaugh had nothing to discuss – he continued to build his show. And other shows. And sponsor new talk radio talent.
Today, talk radio is overwhelmingly conservative, with a strong advertiser base and a loyal listening audience. It shows no signs of going anywhere. And the strong conservative voice – with a counterpoint only from the much-weaker and endangered Air America – is a thorn in the side of many liberal politicians and activists.
Knowing all this, one must question the very targeted aim of the new Fairness Doctrine. Why do Feinstein and others want to have at least one hour in four of broadcasts on AM stations showcasing counterpoint voices? The answer appears very simple to me: these new voices would be overwhelmingly liberal. The new liberal voices would be able to take a whack at that strong conservative audience, and maybe win it over. At the very least, they’d have a chance of weakening or destroying the talk radio listener base.
Why Is This Wrong?
Unlike Gingrich, I can’t call this affirmative action for liberals. I have to call it applying communism to the airwaves – taking the audience and media that Limbaugh and others built up from nothing, only to redistribute it to others who have done nothing to help build it.
Others have disagreed with this point of view, pointing out that the airwaves really belong to the people. That’s true. But I also object to the Fairness Doctrine on other levels.
For one thing, it’s a form of censorship. For each hour that a liberal voice is mandated to appear on AM, that’s an hour that a conservative voice has been removed. Again, love or hate them, those conservative voices are being silenced.
Freedom of speech refers to your right to say whatever you want; no matter how stupid or ill-informed, how brilliant or educated your voice, each person has an equal right to speak. But equality to speak does not extend to two other things. You are not guaranteed the right to a soapbox. You have to create your own means of communicating to other people. And – they are not required to listen. Free speech does not mean you have a captive audience.
In many ways, that’s what the Fairness Doctrine is trying to establish – or to break up, depending on your point of view. But the bottom line is, you don’t have to listen. They can’t make you. This Doctrine seeks to force AM radio consumers to listen to things they don’t want to hear. In the end, it will probably lead to lost listeners for talk radio as these consumers switch over to country music or books on tape. And that impacts revenue for talk radio stations, many of which already run on thin profit margins.
Unforeseen Implications of the Fairness Doctrine
There are dozens of other points to make about the way this will affect radio dials, but there’s a more sinister problem in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. It’s not entirely fair to apply it to just one form of media. Why not others? Why not FM? If your favorite music station plays country music (which tends to be more patriotic and conservative than, say, rap), can it also be forced to play some adult alternative, which might have music by Bono – or worse, rap? (That would get me to turn off the radio in a hurry!)
Or what about the most remarkable mass-media tool ever invented, the Internet? There are ten million or so active blogs out there right now (blogs that update at least once a month or so), but you and I only read a handful of these. Can the most popularl blogs be forced to link to less-popular, opposing-view blogs? Don’t laugh, some proponents of the Fairness Doctrine would like to make you do this. I would hate to have to link to Daily Kos from my site. I’m sure there are a hundred people who’ll read this article who feel the same way about linking to Michelle Malkin.
Someone has to create a bureaucracy to monitor every AM station – and FM station and XM station, cable, newspaper, and Internet site, in worst-case scenarios – to ensure compliance. This, even on the smallest scale, requires a huge infrastructure and piles of new forms and accounting methods. Who pays for these changes? Those getting unwanted information forced on them: you and I. And who decides what is conservative and what is liberal, anyway? Since when is the government qualified to do this?
Why doesn’t the government trust us to seek out our own information? Those listening to talk radio are frequently referred to the Internet. Now, some people might just check out the Rush site – but most are going to start poking around on their own. Links embedded in articles posted there, or comments by viewers, will send others out to sites liberal and conservative and neutral. Even the least web-savvy individuals will quickly be exposed to views opposing their own.
Can this new world not be trusted to us? Must Feinstein and others monitor us to make certain we don’t harm ourselves with all this dangerous information? Ask yourself – whatever side of the fence you’re on, how did you find this article? I’ll bet it was by searching for pertinent information. And I’ll bet you found it.
Ultimately, the Fairness Doctrine is not fair at all. It’s deliberately aimed at media that – this is critical – discuss issues with listeners, rather than dictate a specific point of view. That’s why the Internet was the other form of media suggested as a target for this doctrine. And that’s why the government needs to keep its hands off everyone’s speech, no matter how pervasive or tiny that voice.