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Fair and Unbalanced February 17, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Barack Obama, Democrats, National Politics, Politics, popular culture, Republicans.
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fox_20news_20logoWhat is it that has the talking heads at Fox News spinning lately?  Apparently, it is the possibility of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

As a journalism student in the early 1980’s (shout-out to the University of Scranton!), one of the first tenents of broadcast communications that I learned was the Fairness Doctrine.  A provision of FCC regulation enacted in 1949, the doctrine simply stated that since the airwaves were a public trust, persons with licenses to broadcast over those airwaves had to operate them in the public interest.  The FCC wanted to ensure that “a broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance.”

From the time of its inception, broadcasters argued that the doctrine infringed on free speech; that it allowed the government to have editorial control over content.  In Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC in 1969, however, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the rule.  Supreme Court Justice Byron White wrote: “There is no sanctuary in the First Amendment for unlimited private censorship operating in a medium not open to all.”  Indeed, some have found that the Fairness Doctrine actually preserved free speech.  In a Washington Post column (1/31/94), the Media Access Project (MAP), a telecommunications law firm that supports the Fairness Doctrine, addressed the First Amendment issue: “The Supreme Court unanimously found [the Fairness Doctrine] advances First Amendment values. It safeguards the public’s right to be informed on issues affecting our democracy, while also balancing broadcasters’ rights to the broadest possible editorial discretion.”

Enter Ronald Reagan and his merry band of deregulators in his second term.  Reagan’s FCC Chairman, Mark Fowler, vehemently disagreed with the principle that broadcasters had a unique role in preserving public discourse or a responsibility to serve as a public trustee.   The Fairness Doctrine was weakened throughout the 1980’s and formally repealed in 1987.

So what has the demise of the rule meant and why are so many lining up for and against it?  According to Conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, the death of  the Fairness Doctrine allowed for shows like his to gain a foothold in the radio talk market and dominate it.  This certainly seems like it could be the case, though the FCC relaxation on ownership of radio stations in the 1990s has much more to do with it.  The corporate entities, like Clear Channel Communications, that own stations in the majority of radio markets prefer conservative formats because they better serve the corporate interests.  I’m sure that Clear Channel doesn’t want a bunch of lefties talking about re-regulation, limits on media ownership, equal access, and balance – not good for the bottom line.

There is a growing movement on Capitol Hill and among liberal/progressive circles to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  After twenty-odd years of hearing nothing but right-wing talk on the radio, many on the left are hungry for changes that would restore some balance to the debate.  So, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity are all lining up against any move to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in any form.  Even  on the left, there is diverse opinion on the issue.  Progressive talker Ed Shultz is against it.  He believes that the market place will decide; if it is in the interest of the station owner to broadcast progressive talk – ie. by selling advertising – then he will.  He will produce shows that fill the demand.  The problem with this approach is, again, the ownership of the stations.  Often times, progressive/liberal talk radio was put on in minor markets – then formats would be abruptly changed and the station would disappear.  Owners did not allow enough time to grow audiences and therefore, did not sell advertising, spawning the myth that liberal/progressive talk is not financially viable.

On the other side of the coin is progressive talk show host Bill Press, who engaged in a lively debate on this issue with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly yesterday (though use if the word “debate” is debatable – Kelly just seemed to want to shout Press down).  In Press’ opinion, and in mine, the airwaves ARE a public trust and broadcasters must operate within the public interest.  It is in the public’s interest to hear a diversity of opinion on matters of importance, be they local or national. 

Radio plays an important part – still – in the shaping of public opinion.  If it did not, Rush Limbaugh would not be the de facto head of the Republican party.  It is important for liberals and progressives to be able to speak their side in matters that will be facing the nation in the coming months; more bank bail-out money, mortgage rescues, health care reform, and the American Free Choice Act (card check law).  If they only voices America hears are ones from the extreme fringe of an extreme party, then support for these prudent and necessary initiatives will be lacking.  You could see it when support for President Obama’s economic stimulus went south after the right-wing talkers had their way with it, even though the bill would help a great deal working and middle class Americans.  They did not hear progressive and liberal viewpoints when making their decisions.

As Senator Chuck Schumer said when asked about the Fairness Doctrine, “critics of the Fairness Doctrine are being inconsistent.  The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine want the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to limit pornography on the air. I am for that… But you can’t say government hands off in one area to a commercial enterprise but you are allowed to intervene in another. That’s not consistent.”

We do have a Progressive talk station in Buffalo now, WKBW 1520.  After many years of suffering through local and national right-wing talk, I am wallowing in happiness.  But it makes some people VERY unbalanced. 

And that’s a good thing.

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Comments»

1. frankbi - February 18, 2009

If they only voices America hears are ones from the extreme fringe of an extreme party, then support for these prudent and necessary initiatives will be lacking.

Actually it seems that there is broad-based support for the stimulus package, but it’s all drowned out by the sound of the chattering heads who regurgitate pre-packaged talking points while claiming to speak for The People.

Echo chambers. Astroturf. Decibel logic. Huge networks of megaphones feeding their output into other megaphones and back, all in the good old PR technique of creating huge amounts of repetitive noise.

2. Steve - February 18, 2009

Great post – you are on Technorati!

The problem with giving the populace ultimate control on how they run their lives is that they cannot deal with it. One screaming fanatic from one corner always drowns the 90% of all other voices. One lunatic with a gun outs everyone’s gun owning capacity in jeapordy (As it should.). I am accustomed to a government that offers what you SHOULD be doing, rather than let the Private sector bamboozle everyone with flashing lights, loud voices, and razzmatazz.
We are like children: We may want the candy, but who is going to tell us to eat our vegetables, if our parents loves the candy, too?

3. …Makes Me Furious » Blog Archive » It’S Ok To Desecrate the Us Flag… but Not the Islamic One … - February 17, 2009

[…] Fair and Unbalanced « Kate’s Kitchen Table […]


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