Reviving the "Fairness" Doctrine

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Question: How does a man who once famously used a pie chart in a radio debate cross the line from laughingstock to dangerous adversary?

Answer: When government micromanagement of every aspect of our lives is so widely accepted that someone this clueless need only be elected to Congress and be handed the authority to shape government policy on something important.

Although I eventually changed my mind about whom to vote for in the 2006 elections, one thing I was completely right about was the fact that it is the Democrats who pose the greater immediate threat to freedom of speech.

As I feared, they seem to have decided, more or less immediately upon entering office, to begin attacking this most fundamental political right, the right to communicate ideas without fear or restriction. For starters, they have decided that Dennis Kucinich will be the head of a new subcommittee in the House of Representatives that will concern itself with the Federal Communications Commission.

Over the weekend, the National Conference for Media Reform was held in Memphis, TN, with a number of notable speakers on hand for the event. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) made an [sic] surprise appearance at the convention to announce that he would be heading up a new House subcommittee which will focus on issues surrounding the Federal Communications Commission.

The Presidential candidate said that the committee would be holding "hearings to push media reform right at the center of Washington." The Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee was to be officially announced this week in Washington, D.C., but Kucinich opted to make the news public early.

In addition to media ownership, the committee is expected to focus its attention on issues such as net neutrality and major telecommunications mergers. Also in consideration is the "Fairness Doctrine," which required broadcasters to present controversial topics in a fair and honest manner. [sic] It was enforced until it was eliminated in 1987.

Kucinich said in his speech that "We know the media has become the servant of a very narrow corporate agenda" and added "we are now in a position to move a progressive agenda to where it is visible."

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was also on hand at the conference and took broadcasters to task for their current content, speaking of "too little news, too much baloney passed off as news. Too little quality entertainment, too many people eating bugs on reality TV. Too little local and regional music, too much brain-numbing national play-lists." Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein also spoke at the event. [all bold mine, link added]
For those who have never heard of it, the National Conference for Media Reform is sponsored by an organization called "Free Press" that describes itself as "[A] national nonpartisan organization working to increase informed public participation in crucial media policy debates, and to generate policies that will produce a more competitive and public interest-oriented media system with a strong nonprofit and noncommercial sector."

And if the excessive verbiage, the surprise appearance of Dennis Kucinich at its meeting, and the noncommercial emphasis of this blurb isn't enough to make you suspect that this is a leftist organization, consider a couple of entries from its blog.

From a rambling entry complaining that union advertising was turned down by some Cleveland-area broadcasters, and asserting, among other things, that "the airwaves belong to the public":
"In the very old days," says Ray Abernathy, of the public relations firm Abernathy Associates, "we would file petitions under the Fairness Doctrine and force our way onto the air. When Reagan took office he just destroyed the Fairness Doctrine." The Fairness Doctrine, from 1959 to 1987, required broadcasters to cover public issues of importance to the local community and to provide reasonable opportunities for contrasting and dissenting views on controversial topics. Enforcement required petitioning and arguing one's case, but that is more than one can do today [at someone else's expense, anyway --ed]. A bill in Congress (H.R.4710) sponsored by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) would restore the Fairness Doctrine if ever brought to a vote, passed, and signed into law. [bold added]
In other words, this organization's idea of "free press" is plainly one in which the owners of broadcast media outlets can be forced to publish material they do not wish. Another entry makes this even more explicit:
Some Congressional Democrats have gone on record as favoring a return, in some sense, of the Fairness Doctrine. When this rule was scuttled in 1988 broadcasters were no longer obligated to provide "equal time" to opposing views. This led to a pandemic of right-wing radio talk shows and, of course, Fox News. Radio stations on the AM band were certainly spared extinction but the level of public discourse inside the U.S. fell to painful depths.

Arguments against the Fairness Doctrine are compelling. Advanced nearly 100 years ago when air-waves were thought to be scarce, the digital age renders that point moot. "The Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," says the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing newspapers to tout their owners' views and endorse political candidates. Broadcasters were unable to dip their toes into controversial positions without raising the certainty of legal action.

Eliminating the Fairness Doctrine and its related rules (i.e. equal time) brought freedom of speech to broadcasters but only in so far as that "speech" could survive in a marketplace. ... [bold added]
So, even though the "digital age" makes it easy to broadcast one's opinion, these activists still want to coopt the private property of more successful commercial broadcasters so they can air their views to the larger audience (an asset I never see discussed in the context of the "Fairness" Doctrine, but which they earned, by the way) without having had to build this audience themselves. That this violates the property rights of such private broadcasters is not even on the radar of "Free Press". (Remember, this organization does not recognize property rights in broadcast media.)

But the fact that the "Fairness" Doctrine does violate the broadcasters' freedom of speech -- by causing them to fear lawsuits and by muzzling them for the duration of any forced broadcasting does register. Note the use of scare quotes around that last instance of "speech" -- as if saying something is somehow is not a right if it is done for profit and directed towards an audience that wants to hear it .

Free Press obviously is hoping that nobody notices that it stands for anything but the right it brazenly names itself for.

A man whose idea of effective presentation is to use visual aids over a radio broadcast -- and who confuses stolen property with freedom of speech -- now shapes policy that can directly affect our ability to discuss issues of vital importance to our lives. And he is apparently in bed with an organization that does not recognize property rights in broadcast media and does not care about the right to freedom of speech.

We need to stop laughing at Dennis Kucinich and start worrying a lot more about our freedom of speech.

-- CAV


Vigilis said...

Gus, how can any American be against fairness? COL (Chortling Out Loud)

The Fairness Doctrine may be the epitome of Democrat deceits. Like the best propaganda, it has a virtuous sounding theme. And typical of the trial barristers financing and leading the Dem party, it would invoke the corrupt, but legalized, extortion of law to curtail our constitutional freedom.

Gus Van Horn said...

Obviously, I am against fairness because I haven't any children. Haven't you been listening to "Ma" Pelosi?

Expect me to start spouting off Democrat talking points in about a year.

On a serious note, it's probably a good thing that the Democrats are doing this since at least that might motivate Republicans to oppose it while at the same time preventing their moves to impose "decency" restrictions on broadcast media.

In fact, neither side fully supports or appreciates freedom of speech.