There has been some talk, to include comments from former President Bill Clinton, that the federal government’s Fairness Doctrine should perhaps be reinstated.
The Fairness Doctrine regulations were formerly under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission and called for broadcast stations to present programs on public issues and do so with a balanced presentation.
A good idea, but not if under the thumb of government.
On its face it seems contrary to the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
For one thing, the First Amendment calls for free speech, not forced speech.
The rationale for the Fairness Doctrine, upheld by the courts, was that there were only a limited number of broadcast frequencies available and since they were allotted and controlled by the FCC, that agency had a right to protect the public interest. And of course it is important that the public has access to information on public issues which hopefully would be presented in an objective way in which all sides of an issue are voiced.
Sounds good, kind of.
But while at one time the protection might have had a place, with all the access to information, news, opinion, gossip and so on that is available today (most of it by way of the internet) the doctrine is an anachronism. And I still don’t think it was ever a good or workable policy.
Those calling for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine are generally Democrats (but certainly not all Democrats) and primarily of what for lack of a better label we call the “left wing” or perhaps “progressives”.
And the reason they want it is that for about the past one to two decades the right wing or so-called conservative element has ruled the airwaves, thanks in large part to one entity: Clear Channel Communications. This outfit owns some 1,200 radio stations across the U.S. and every one of them play right wing talk shows nearly 24 hours per day.
There has been some attempt to counter it in the past several years with something called Air America, but to my knowledge it has pretty much fallen flat, even though one of its stars, Al Franken, did get elected to the U.S. Senate. And I understand Air America after going bankrupt changed hands and is now called Air Media.
A lot of this is a problem of monopoly and of demographics. The monopoly, Clear Channel, inundates the airwaves with right wing talk. And for some reason, the audience is primarily made up of what I would label as “reactionaries”, listeners who resent objective or analytical reasoning and often feel those on the left are perhaps too educated for their own good. These are also typically people who have a lot of time on their hands or in their minds to listen to radio. I used to be a truck driver; and as I drove along for hundreds of miles per day, I had a lot of time and I listened. I was often entertained. I seldom agreed. And I was often outraged at the opinions presented, but again it did seem to have some kind of draw. I also listened to what liberal talk there was. There is little to no middle-of-the-road talk (being objective and reasonable is dull, I suppose).
But all that said, the last thing we need is the government policing our speech, especially when it comes to the discussion of public issues.
Ironically, Public Broadcasting is the closest thing we have to government broadcasting aimed at the general public. I say ironically, because even though in the past many years (not now) our politics was tilted to the right, Public Broadcasting to me seems tilted way left (don’t get me wrong, I like it, I can sort things out).
But anything that would be regulated or in any way or in any amount funded in its presentation by the government would be exactly opposite of what our democracy and the free flow of ideas it depends upon for survival call for.
I need to explain something here too. My quick Wikipedia research tells me that the defunct Fairness Doctrine is not the same as the Equal Time rule, which covers political candidates, which is still applicable (but there are exceptions to it).
Here’s another obstacle in enforcing a Fairness Doctrine. It is supposed to cover only public issue discussion, not news reports (I think). But sometimes news and opinion are intermingled – actually make that nearly all the time on most broadcast shows (and we will not dicuss the internet here). Partly it is the nature of how broadcast has to be presented, with its time constraints, that meld facts and opinion together, especially when speakers are summarizing.
For years many complained that the three major networks tilted toward left-wing or Democratic politics in their news coverage. I recall that David Brinkley was said to display his opinion with the mere raise of an eyebrow and ironic or sardonic expression when he read the news on NBC (and I used to watch him a lot – he did – although I don’t recall if he always leaned in one ideological direction).
Today we have Fox News. This network is blatantly and unapologetically right wing in its presentation of news and opinion, even though its tag line is ironically “fair and balanced”. But by doing so they reach that reactionary demographic I mentioned earlier. And I find myself checking Fox News out to make sure I’m not be snowballed by the accepted storyline that the traditional media has tacitly agreed upon, even if in the end I do not agree with Fox.
Restrictions on free speech are not what we want. If the monopoly of Clear Channel and Fox was as powerful as even I once thought it to be, Barack Obama would not be president of the United States today.
P.s. Like our new president said in response to a question as to whether he’s too nice: “I’m leaving on Air Force One in a few minutes”.
P.s. P.s. How about this for a Saturday Night Live routine: Barack Obama reintroduces himself to John McCain: “Hi, I’m the President and you’re not”.
P.s. P.s. P.s. And the proof about the Fairness Doctrine question is that, as we all know, if most talk shows leaned the other way (left), former President Clinton would not call for the Fairness Doctrine. He also in public remarks allowed as how Rush Limburger (not his real name, but the one I use) is entertaining. I thought so too at one time. But I got tired of him.