Friday, July 06, 2007

Censorship by "Fairness"

One of the main applause lines during Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s keynote address at ALA Annual was his reference to the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949. It required stations that broadcast on the public airwaves to present both sides of controversial issues. A product of an era when media options were very limited, the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned by the FCC as an anachronism in 1987.

While the Fairness Doctrine may sound like a good idea in theory, in practice it had a deleterious impact on free expression. As both the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Museum of Broadcast Communications have pointed out, the Fairness Doctrine had the effect of stifling debate, not fostering it. Stations afraid of running afoul of the FCC simply avoided discussion of controversial topics altogether. In fact, it was the end of the Fairness Doctrine that led to the rise of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s.

For that reason alone, some on the left have never abandoned hope that the pre-1987 status quo could somehow be restored. Fueled in part by a recent report from the liberal Center for American Progress arguing that talk radio is overwhelmingly dominated by conservatives, some Democrats have suggested bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. However, as James L. Gattuso has written for National Review Online, it is highly unlikely that any such effort will be successful. Unfortunately, Gattuso notes, it is likely that Democrats will try a different approach to regulating the content of political talk radio, which will include:

Strengthened limits on how many radio stations on firm can own, locally and nationally;

Shortening broadcast license terms;

Requiring radio broadcasters to regularly show they are operating in the “public interest;”

Imposing a fee on broadcasters who fail to meet these “public interest obligations” with the funding to go to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The goal of the reforms is the same as the Fairness Doctrine: to reduce the influence of conservative talk radio. Limiting ownership, the authors believe, will eliminate many of the owners who favor conservative causes. Public interest requirements can be defined almost any way a regulator wants — up to and perhaps even beyond that required by the old Fairness Doctrine. And the proposed fee provides regulators with a quite effective stick to compel compliance — as well as to direct funds to more ideologically compatible public broadcasters.

Whatever form it takes, it is clear that the Democrats' impending assault on talk radio has nothing to do with "fairness" or "diversity" or "media consolidation"; rather, it is a naked attempt to silence conservative talk radio. After all, why is there all this concern about ensuring a fair representation of views on public airwaves, yet no concern about the equally one sided dominance of liberal and leftist viewpoints at public universities? Besides, does anyone really think that liberals would even be making an issue of talk radio if Air America had been a roaring success instead of a bankruptcy ridden failure?

It is ironic that so many of those who complain about the Bush Administration allegedly "crushing dissent" have no problem contemplating methods akin to those of Hugo Chavez to try to force opinions they don't like off the air.


Blogger Stephen Denney said...

Regarding the first point, "Strengthened limits on how many radio stations one firm can own, locally and nationally," that does not seem so bad to me. Is that not akin to anti-trust legislation, intended in this case to prevent just a few companies from owning most of the radio stations in the country?

3:13 PM  

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