Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine (FD) was first introduced in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission and according to Wikipedia it "required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced." President-elect Obama and Democrat Congressional leaders have voiced support for re-introducing the FD. Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act in 2005 and will likely do so in the new Congressional term.

[T]he airwaves belong to the people. I think we've good and sufficient examples now of what has happened to us with media consolidation — the fact that the information coming to us is controlled, the fact that at least half the people in the United States have no voice because they're not allowed in on talk radio .

The airwaves do not belong to "the people". The airwaves were sitting there without use or utility until someone invented a transmitter and a receiver. Like any resource, it took the actions of individuals to bring value to the airwaves. And like any resource, those who took those actions have a moral claim to ownership, that is, property rights to the resource.

Government's proper purpose is the protection individual rights, including property rights. In the context of previously unclaimed resources, such as western lands or the airwaves, the government must define the actions required for a legitimate claim of ownership to exist. For example, the Homestead Act required an individual to farm his land for a period of years to obtain title. Which means, the individual had to give value to the resource before he could claim ownership.

To claim that the airwaves belong to the people is to declare that the individuals who own transmitters are merely servants of the public. It is to declare that broadcasters may operate, not by right, but by permission. It is to declare that broadcasters must provide a microphone that others may use to attack them.

Frederick Wasser, Associate Professor of Television and Radio at Brooklyn College, writes:

The importance of the Fairness Doctrine is not eviscerated by the fact that it will always fall short of giving us truly public-spirited television. Its importance is that to reinstate the doctrine is the high-minded fight to restore ideals to mass media. The doctrine will show a general political commitment to a public sphere of mutual listening and mutual talking. It is a fight for once broadly accepted simple ideals such as this one that will reinvigorate a democratic media, not a search for an impotent third way or an acceptance of the corporate media status quo. Perhaps the saddest thing about politics in the age of media consolidation is that Republicans feel they no longer have to listen to Democrats or any other oppositional voices. They don’t listen because they know the post-doctrine media will also ignore these voices. The fact that they don’t listen has led them to make repeated mistakes in their foreign and domestic policy, not only mistakes of convention, but also mistakes of competency.

The purpose of the media is to report the facts. It is not (or at least, should not be) a democratic institution.

If words have meaning, a "democratic media" would be one in which the majority rules. In other words, the reporting of news would not be governed by the facts and what actually occurred, but by a vote. But truth is not determined by a consensus or a show of hands. No matter how many people might believe that the Earth is flat will not change the fact that it isn't.

For all the talk of stimulating discussion, this is nothing more than an attempt to stifle debate. It is an attempt to allow the majority (or their representatives) to dictate both the content and the method of public discourse. In practical terms, those with ideas outside of the mainstream are silenced.

Political analyst Taylor Marsh believes that the Fairness Doctrine will "level the playing field" by giving Democrats more exposure on radio.

As I've written many times, the Republicans have used radio to pump up emotion and GOTV. In case you haven't noticed, radio works. Just ask Karl Rove, who has worked and worked and worked it. It's about getting control of all the little stations in all the little towns so that you can influence all those people. The host gets to know his/her audience, they trust him/her, so when this host tells them to vote for Right Wing Randy/Roxanne, they likely will. After all, they've built up a trust. Republicans will do anything to get ratings, which includes leaving the facts out and plying their audience with daily doses of emotion instead. Democrats are still behind in radio, trying to reinvent the wheel instead of using their donor base to help hosts who could hold their own. Creating Democratic business consortiums that help hosts get on the air, with the best of us staying on and eventually catapulting to syndication. The Fairness Doctrine could really make a difference. Why do you think conservatives are screaming like crazy?
Marsh implies that those who listen to conservative talk radio are mindless robots who follow the marching orders of the hosts-- "they've built up a trust". The condescending Marsh believes the only way to overcome this is by forcing broadcasters to give liberals equal air time so that the Left can create its own mindless robots. (I could mention that the mass media seems to have done a good job of that already, but I won't.)

The last time I checked, my radio comes with a tuner that allows me to select from a variety of radio stations. It also has an on/ off button. Indeed, every radio I have ever seen in my life has such a features. In other words, listening to talk radio is a choice. The popularity of conservative talk radio is the result of the choices of millions of individuals. And it is this freedom of choice that Marsh and her cohorts seek to eliminate. (I should also add that, while I do listen to conservative talk radio regularly, I disagree with the vast majority of what I hear.)

In mandating that both sides of an issue be aired, the Fairness Doctrine dictated the content of speech. It compelled broadcaster to air ideas that they might find repugnant. It forced broadcaster to cede control of their property.

Marc Lamont Hill, Assistant Professor of Urban Education and American Studies at Temple University, and described as a “Hip-Hop Intellectual” on his web site, believes that the Fairness Doctrine is a component of social justice.

Although the Fairness Doctrine remains our best option for sustaining any semblance of media democracy, it is not without its limitations and shortcomings. By legislating our demands for equal time for the “other side,” we reify a liberal/conservative binary that effectively obscures the existence of perspectives that fall outside of that shortsighted dichotomy. Also, by intervening in the programming decisions of corporatized radio outlets, we fail to address the more profound structural problems that accompany neo-liberal globalization. Nevertheless, the Fairness Doctrine will provide us with a much-needed respite from the conservative media assault that has undermined democratic discourse and social justice.

While acknowledging the veracity of Mr. Hill's accurately pompous identification of ideas outside those offered by liberals and conservatives, I must respectfully disagree that the ideas of liberals and conservatives constitute a dichotomy. In terms of essentials the ideas offered by liberals and conservatives are the same. They only differ in regard to the particular area of our life that they seek to control. Both advocate altruism and collectivism. They only differ in their emphasis.

Mr. Hill wants to use the Fairness Doctrine to promote "social justice", a view that Wikipedia says "affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society." Which means, individuals should receive the "benefits of society" regardless of their individual contribution. Which means, to each according to his need, from each according to his ability. So if someone has a "need" to broadcast his message to the masses he can demand that those with the ability to do so--i.e., broadcasters--fulfill his need.

The Fairness Doctrine is only one attempt by the government to control free speech. For example, the 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act mandates that cable companies provide training, technology, and distribution of programs produced by the public, i.e., public access television. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold Act) limits campaign contributions as well as when particular types of political ads can be broadcast. This trend will likely continue, and more likely increase as those with political power seek to stifle dissenting view points.


Harold said...

After rejecting theism some time ago and coming to understand more about objectivist principles, I have found the ideas on conservative talk radio to be repugnant. And as you said, I made a choice and stopped listening. In any case, the fairness doctrine does seem like a great idea for those who can't win in the marketplace of ideas.

Well, it's true that there are rubes who will vote for anyone they hear endorsed on Prager or Hannity or O'Reilly (oh wait, he doesn't endorse candidates, lol). There are also "urban rubes" who will vote for any democrat cause it's "hip" or progressive or most on campus are doing so. Does it matter? No, because it's not the job of the government to tell people how to think or what they must broadcast.

Do you think they'll be able to get it passed again?

Brian Phillips said...

There is certainly a lot of support for a renewed Fairness Doctrine. Obama has voiced support, as has Pelosi, so I think it has a good chance of passing.