Remembering the Fairness Doctrine   3 comments

This can be considered an installment of my media influence series. It isn’t over. I just got busy and distracted.

 

The American people just seem unable to learn the folly of allowing the administrative state to control anything in our lives.

 

When I was in college (early 1980s) there was a fierce debate underway about the unfairness of the Fairness Doctrine.

 

For those who are unfamiliar with the Fairness Doctrine, it was based on a 1949 Federal Communications Commission regulaion that requried broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of pulbic importantce.” It was overturned by the FCC in 1987 because, contrary to its purpose, it failed to encourage discussion of more controversial issues. It also violated the First Amendment, but who cares about that old piece of paper anyway, right?

 

The Fairness Doctrine was predicated on the idea that the airwaves were scarce and to assure that broadcasters did not stomp on one another’s signal, the government had to regulate access. From that came the idea that it could also regulate content. The FCC claimed that the only way to assure fair and balanced news and opinion was to mandate it.

 

In practice, controversial speech was silenced as the threat of random investigations and warnings discouraged broadcasters from airing what FCC bureaucrats might refer to as “unbalanced views.” Rather than encouraging debate, it stifled it. But it also skewed the news.

 

Those of us old enough to remember the late-1960s remember the “Silent Majority” – a vast number of ordinary Americans who never seemed to make waves. While protests swept college campuses and sucked up all the media attention, they were largely silent. But were they, really? We now know that as the media focused glowing attention on the affects of progressivism in the America a large groundswell of conservatives were forming that would eventually bring Ronald Reagan to the presidency, followed a few years later by the Contract with America. If you go back and look at broadcasts from that era, you don’t see any evidence of that groundswell. You have to go to print media to find it. There were a handful of local radio stations that allowed citizens to call in and espress opinions, but if the discussion skewed too far to the conservative end of the wading pool, the radio station management was likely to receive a call from the FCC telling them to balance their content.

 

I’m not saying there was a vast progressive conspiracy to keep conservative ideology off the airwaves. I’m saying that government is more likely to be staffed by progressives. It makes sense. If you feel that government should be small and limited, you’re less likely to seek employment with government. If you are a progressive, you are more likely to view progressive ideas as being more truthful and valid than conservative ideas. You are also going to get into a lather when the local radio station allows “unbalanced” views and you can do something about it. So the FCC became a watchdog and bulwark against conservative ideology creeping onto the airwaves.

 

In 1984, the Supreme Court concluded that the scarcity rationale underlying the doctrine was flawed and that the doctrine “inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate”. When the Fairness Doctrine was set aside in 1986, conservative talk radio exploded onto the scene. It didn’t need to build an audience because that previously Silenced Majority were thrilled to finally hear their own beliefs in public.

 

Of course, progressives don’t like that and there have been occasional attempts to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, especially to enshrine it in Congression law. Reagan vetoed one attempt in 1987 and later attempts have failed to pass Congress. As an independent regulatory agency (which ought to scare the hell out of all intelligent Americans), the FCC has the power to reimpose the doctrine without Congressional or Executive action.

 

Supporters of reviving the un-Fairness Doctrine base their argument on the same three faulty premises that the FCC used originally.

 

Scarcity

The broadcast spectrum is limited, supporters say, so they should be policed by federal bureaucrats to ensure that all viewpoints are heard. And yet there are thousands of radio and television stations nationwide as well as cable and satellite channgels and the Internet (more on that in a later post). There is little prospect for a information monopoly simply because of the incredible diversity of media.

 

Fairness

Federal policing is needed to guarantee fair access to the airwaves for a diversity of viewpoints. This is assuming that FCC bureaucrats have the ability to discern what is “fair”. The way the Fairness Doctrine was administered, each broadcaster had to offer air time to anyone with a controversial viewpoint. FCC regulators would arbitrarily determine what “fair access” was and who was entitled to it through selective enforcement. PBS in Fairbanks Alaska was a progressive wonderland with no FCC warnings in its jacket. KFAR in the same market would receive regular FCC warnings for listerners calling in and expressing their personal opinion. Gotta balance that! Both the Kennedy and Nixon administrations used the Fairness Doctrine to keep unfavorable reporting off the airs. What is “fair”? It all depends on your viewpoint, I guess.

 

Guaranteed Vigorous Debate

Supporters of the Fairness Doctrine then and now will assert that requiring broadcasters, under threat of arbitrary legal penalty, to “fairly” represent both sides of a given issue will result in more views being aired and will not affect the editorial content of a station. The reality was quite different. Under the Fairnmess Doctrine, with the threat of potential FCC retaliation for perceived lack of compliance, most broadcasters were reluctant to air their own opinions because it required them to also air alternative perpectives thatt their audiences did not want to hear. Free (regulated) speech became less free. It did not result in easier access to conversial views, but instead led to self-censorship. With the wide diversity of views available today, people seeking alternative viewpoints can simply change the channel or click on a different link.

 

Ah, but can they?

 

I see Net Neutrality as this era’s version of the Fairness Doctrine and I predict it will result in the exact same problems and with far more dire consequences.

3 responses to “Remembering the Fairness Doctrine

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  1. Reblogged this on Give Me Liberty.

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  2. Pingback: ANOTHER STEP TOWARDS LIBERTY LOST | Citizen Tom

  3. Pingback: My Article Read (2-28-2015) | My Daily Musing

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