Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fairness Doctrine Smackdown

There has been a lot of talk lately about the so-called Fairness Doctrine, and how it will be a damper on free speech because of it's "equal time" provision. Well, I want to explain what it all means for those of you confused and scared by these implications. Without getting into the long involved history of it, the fairness doctrine was established in 1949, suffered a constitutional challenge in 1969, which it survived, setting a legal precedent, and was finally revoked in 1987. The actual language from the 1969 ruling is as follows,

"When, during the presentation of views on a controversial issue of public importance, an attack is made upon the honesty, character, integrity or like personal qualities of an identified person or group, the licensee shall, within a reasonable time and in no event later than 1 week after the attack, transmit to the person or group attacked
(1) notification of the date, time and identification of the broadcast;
(2) a script or tape (or an accurate summary if a script or tape is not available) of the attack; and
(3) an offer of a reasonable opportunity to respond over the licensee's facilities."

This last requirement is what has caused all the worry, and has been popularly interpreted, albeit somewhat incorrectly, to mean that your favorite radio talk show host will be forced to stop speaking freely his/her opinions. While I agree that passage of a bill allowing enforcement of this doctrine would be chilling to free speech, it is not the end of the world. Now don't start sending me hate mail, let me finish! What I mean is that relatively speaking, we have much bigger things to worry about than the fairness doctrine (more on that later...), and secondly, the implementation of this rule-set will be much more harmful to the radio station owners/companies themselves than any individual talk show host or radio personality. You see, the FCC only has jurisdiction over the license holder, the broadcast station. They cannot force anyone to say or not say anything. What they can do is fine the station owners for not providing equal time for the 'opposing view'. For example, Rush Limbaugh does not have to let some liberal talking head onto his show for half of his planned broadcast time. The station carrying his broadcast must provide that time, at their own expense even, if a person or group with opposing viewpoints requests it. And you know they will. Here's the problem. The station is now forced to give away valuable broadcast time, that no advertiser is going to want to support, time that before would have been filled with some kind of revenue-producing programming. I mean, let's be honest, left-leaning radio broadcasts have never attracted a following big enough to justify commercial time to any large advertiser. Can you say 'Air America'?

The current iteration of the fairness doctrine was most recently defeated by Congress in the summer of 2007, but will be revived should the Democratic Party gain a veto-proof majority in the House (which is entirely possible come tomorrow). I am sure that whoever proposes the next bill will try to include internet content such as bloggers, which I oppose more from a 'keep your filthy paws off my internet' perspective than any attempt at censorship. There are a lot of good reasons why the fairness doctrine is bad, besides the obvious ones, and the arguments used to support it in the past just don't hold water anymore. There are so many outlets for varying points of view today that you couldn't read/listen to/watch a fraction of them if you tried. Gone are the days when you got your canned news in neat little prescreened doses at the end of a long day. Today you get your news fresh and raw on your phone via texting the instant it happens, before it has a chance to even hit the mainstream media filter. And analysis from someone you can create a rapport with, not the cute guy in the blue suit on channel eleventy-seven who is reeeeeeally good at reading a teleprompter.

A little something my friends and I like to call the mainSTREET media.

Unfortunately, there is already in place an 'equal time' provision in the US Code, relating specifically to political campaigners. If you really want to make your head explode, take a gander at Title 47, Chapter 5, Subchapter III, Part I, Subsection 315. Talk about micromanagement! I am of course aware there is such a thing as creeping incrementalism, and we must fight this just as vigilantly as any other possible encroachment on our freedoms, but sometimes we must pick and choose our battles. After all, how many of us thought 6 months ago we would be in bed with Hillary supporters, singing the praises of John McCain, of all people?!

Alas, we can fret and worry over the fairness doctrine, but I believe there are bigger fish to fry, and their name is Cap and Trade and the Employee Free Choice Act.

1 comment:

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