The Hill has reported an interesting look at Congressional debate surrounding the resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine, which, until 1987, required broadcasters to devote a “reasonable” amount of time to presenting all sides of a controversial issue.
Until the law was scrapped, the government was empowered to determine how many sides and what constituted “reasonable time” and “fairness.”
Allow me to boil down the current flap: conservative talk radio dominates the airwaves — and that royally upsets left-of-center politicians, activists and average joes who are frequently skewered. The lefties say a revived Fairness Doctrine would help ensure Americans (I’m supposing Americans who get most of their news from talk-radio stations) are better informed. The righties say the government shouldn’t be in the business of regulating media. The lefties argue that station owners make their big profits from public airwaves and, therefore, owe it to the public to be more balanced when presenting information. The righties argue that those big profits underscore that the public obviously isn’t buying what the left is selling (“Remember Air America?” they ask.).
I side with the righties on this one. Newsweek columnist George Will makes an argument with which I find it very difficult to quibble.
“Conservatives dominate talk radio,” he wrote. “Although no more thoroughly than liberals dominate Hollywood, academia and much of the mainstream media.”
Will also convinced me that the Fairness Doctrine hampered free speech — and likely would do so again. To make his point, he delivered an eye-opening history lesson:
“Beginning in 1927, the government, concerned about the scarcity of radio-spectrum access, began regulating the content of broadcasts. In 1928, it decided that the programming of New York’s WEVD, which was owned by the Socialist Party, was not in the public interest. The station’s license was renewed after a warning to show ‘due regard for the opinions of others.’ What was ‘due’? Who knew?
“In 1929, the government refused the Chicago Federation of Labor’s attempt to buy a station because, spectrum space being limited, all stations ‘should cater to the general public.’ A decade later, the government conditioned the renewal of a station’s license on the station’s promise to broadcast no more anti-FDR editorials.
” … The Kennedy administration, anticipating a 1964 race against Barry Goldwater, had wielded the doctrine against stations broadcasting conservative programming. The Democratic Party paid people to monitor conservative broadcasts and coached liberals in how to demand equal time. This campaign burdened stations with litigation costs and won 1,678 hours of free air time.”
The Nixon administration played similar games with the nation’s three major networks.
All of the political shenanigans affecting the nation’s broadcast outlets weren’t lost on liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who wrote in 1973 that the doctrine allowed administration after administration to “toy with TV and radio.”
It was under President Regan that the law was dropped. By the mid-’80s, it was difficult to argue that there was a “scarcity” of media. And now? The scarcity argument is absurd. Aside from the Internet, there are, according to Will:
“14,000 radio stations—twice as many as in 1970—and satellite radio has nearly 14 million subscribers. Eighty-seven percent of households have either cable or satellite television with more than 500 channels to choose from. There are more than 19,000 magazines (up more than 5,000 since 1993).”
If Americans want balanced information, they can most certainly find it — and without the government’s help.
As you’re watching this issue unfold in Congress, pay attention to U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative Republican from Indiana, who had a syndicated talk-radio show before winning election. (Pence is also a co-sponsor of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007, also known as the federal media shield bill.) Pence is working with Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon who owns a radio station, to craft legislation aimed at stopping a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine. I have a hunch — it’s only a hunch — that they’ll find a friend in Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado, who has owned radio stations in Pueblo and Denver.