Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Don't Get It

Do you listen to talk radio? Sometimes I listen to Glenn Beck, sometimes, although less and less, to Rush Limbaugh, and sometimes to Michael Savage. They all three run on the same station here in Pittsburgh along with the unlistenable Quinn & Rose and a very nice local sports package during evening drive. If you do listen to any of these shows then you've been hearing a lot of demonizing around "the fairness doctrine."

They've taken to calling it "the censorship doctrine."

My recollection is that this thing used to be called "equal time." That the thought was that the airwaves belong to the public and so no one particular viewpoint should get to dominate them and therefore whenever a broadcast outlet chose to air something partisan one way or the other they had to provide equal time to the opposition.

The rabid fear is that somehow the Obama administration is going to use equal time to destroy talk radio - thereby silencing their only critic.

So here's the part I don't get. These same people howl at the moon about how there's a deep left wing bias to all reporting in the legit media.

Let's skip the part about who is and who isn't legit media anymore. I always find it somewhat humorous when someone with a regular show on the radio complains about the liberal slat on the media. Um, sir, aren't you also media? Like I said, we'll skip that.

But... If there is in fact this deep liberal media bias, then isn't it the lefties that should be concerned about the concept of equal time? I mean, if every network newscast is biased then in the very least can't talk radio position themselves as the equal time balance to that bias? Or even moreso, won't that mean that the networks will be coerced to air more conservative views?

I don't think you can have it both ways. Either there is a vast liberal bias to mainstream media in which case talk radio should be fine or talk radio is in real trouble because the right wing pudits have been full of shit about the bias all along.

I leave it to the reader as an exercise to determine that one.

Also, I can't help think that the fairness doctrine was tooled for an outlet scarce environment. The idea here is that people not be forced to hear only one idea. Surely that isn't a problem now. When I am not listening to Glen, Rush, or Dr. Savage I am listening to Fresh Air, All Things Considered, and Morning Edition - and sometimes This Way Out, Counterspin, and The Allegheny Front. I am an intellectual omnivore of sorts and I seem to have no trouble pushing a different button when I have heard enough ranting from either side.

As someone oft to use the phrase "surely we can find some common ground" I believe that Barack Obama is someone that would also appreciate having a range available and nobody ought to fear their right to shout lies at the public be they Rush, NPR, or Savage.

And you too should really listen to Counterspin.


Blake said...

> I mean, if every
> network newscast is biased
> then in the very least
> can't talk radio position
> themselves as the equal
> time balance to that bias?
> Or even moreso, won't that
> mean that the networks will
> be coerced to air more
> conservative views?

No, that won't be the case because the proposals floating around Congress right now from the Left aren't aimed at broadcasters in general but *only* at radio broadcasters. The one fact alone is enough to convince me that the agenda here isn't fairness but rather to silence the one area of the media in which liberal opinion does not dominate.

The argument is that when faced with a whole host of new government regulations to follow and the requirement to provide airtime for less-than-profitable material in equal time to the profitable material, a radio broadcaster will simply choose to just change formats to something like jazz or classic rock where they can make money off all of their airtime and don't have to deal with the issue at all.

And like it or not, when it comes to radio, conservative talk is what's profitable. Air America is an object lesson there. The only reason NPR survives is because it's subsidized by the taxpayer.

This whole issue also presupposes that there are only two sides to any given issue-- Republican/Democrat, Right/Left. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most issues have a variety of viewpoints. The issue of illegal immigration is a perfect example. The Republicans and Democrats are both so corrupt and beholden to their various special interest groups that the positions of both parties fail to reflect the views of the majority of Americans. Yet under the Fairness Doctrine, only the official Republican and Democrat positions would be entitled to equal time.

There are actually a myriad of opinions on just about every issue. Should a radio station that airs one position have to give equal time to them all? If not, why not? If so, that will pretty much bring the talk radio format to a screeching halt as it's absolutely unworkable in
real-world practice.

The argument is that the *real* goal of the Democrats is not to have equal time for their viewpoints (because after all, they already have their viewpoints represented on most of the television and cable news outlets) but rather to make airing talk radio (where conservatism dominates) so much of a hassle that it will incentivize broadcasters to just get rid of it altogether.

And one only has to look at history to see the results of this theory made real. When it was tried before, the Fairness Doctrine didn't result in more robust public debate. It silenced public debate on the airwaves. Here's a brief history of the Fairness Doctrine and its past effects by James Miller/Washington Times:

One of life's most interesting, often jolting, experiences is to find out that well-intentioned action can have serious, unintended consequences.

So it is with many public policy initiatives. The so-called Fairness Doctrine is just such a case.

It seems plausible, even fair, that people should be afforded an opportunity to receive communication about both (or several) sides of controversial issues. No one contends with the right of people to propound any side of any issue. That's the First Amendment. The rub comes when government, in the name of fairness, tries to force some providers of information to present "balanced" views.

The so-called Fairness Doctrine was initiated by the Federal Communications Commission in 1967, but was ended by President Reagan's FCC in 1987. The doctrine required broadcasters to deal with controversial issues of public importance, but to do so in a way that provided contrasting points of view. Note that the doctrine applied only to radio and TV broadcasters. It did not apply to newspapers or magazines, nor would it have applied to blogs and other personal electronic communications. (Nor can it legally apply to any non-broadcast media. The Supreme Court ruled that the only reason the Fairness Doctrine-- and indeed all FCC regulation of content-- passes constitutional and 1st Amendment muster is because the airwaves are both public and finite. Without both of those two criteria present, government imposition on speech-- even in the name of fairness-- is unconstitutional.)

The consequences of the so-called Fairness Doctrine are well-documented. When it was imposed, public discussion and debate about
controversial issues over the air waves dried up. When the doctrine was ended, the reverse ensued. Now some broadcasts present various
sides of issues, but we also have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Gordon Liddy and others on the right, and Air America, Thom Hartmann, Bill Press and others on the left. With the so-called Fairness Doctrine we had virtually no broadcast communication about controversial issues. Without the doctrine, we have a thriving, wholesome discussion and debate.

In effect, the so-called Fairness Doctrine amounts to what my friend, Barbara Comstock, has labeled a censorship doctrine. Its history is literally the censorship-- albeit indirect-- of public issues debate on the airwaves.

Why does the Fairness Doctrine work that way?

The reason is quite simple: broadcasters are so intimidated by the FCC, in fear that their licenses won't be renewed, they eschew anything controversial. So, you get news, music, comedy and drama - just as long as there is no controversy. Those looking for information and debate over public policies are simply out of luck.

Put yourself in the position of the broadcaster: your very existence is dependent on the FCC's renewing your license every few years. And the FCC says you must offer "balanced" programming. What does this mean?

If you have a call-in show and do your best to "balance" the discussion, what do you do when the callers are all conservative? Or all liberal? What if you have a personality emceeing a show who has a strong point of view and you invite experts on to present the "other side" and no experts are available? And will you choose the "right" experts? What if the FCC says you should have chosen different experts? What if an issue you think is not controversial turns out to be the subject of protest to the FCC? For the broadcaster, discretion is the better part of valor. A mandate to present issues in a "balanced" way turns out to fraught with peril. Better to switch to a format with no such hazards: music, comedy or straight news.

Right now, there is increasing interest in imposing such a regulatory scheme. Although polls show that the public favors balanced presentations, most do not realize that in the interest of getting the "other side" they will get neither side. Some in Congress also support the imposition of the Fairness Doctrine. Perhaps they think it would result in balanced presentation of controversial issues. But one must at least suspect that their real motive is to censor public criticism of their policies.

David said...

I have some more moonbat opinion that this isn't about opposing opinions at all but rather about controlling what does and doesn't get on the air, so that only "official line" makes it. In some ways under the current circumstances that motivation makes more sense - otherwise with the number of outlets available crying over who is actually loudest seems kind of stupid.

If that's the case, to restrict information to party line, doesn't that make a better argument against than anything else?

Blake said...

I agree that it's about restricting what gets on the air. Somehow I just don't see Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid sitting in their offices, wringing their hands over the fact that there's not a balanced debate on the AM dial. Call me cynical but I've developed a healthy skepticism for what motivates politicians.