Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fairness: the Fake Debate

Someone needs to explain why it is that conservatives continue to insist that liberals want to reinstitute the FCC’s 1949 Fairness Doctrine. While it is true that the old regulation is brought up from time to time, it has no traction in either the House of Senate. The administration is opposed to it. The Supreme Court would rule against it. Still, conservative talk radio continues to chant about the “Hush Rush Bill’ as if were a real threat with real backing. It isn’t, it doesn’t and it’s not going to happen. Nor will the sky fall.

Before you start to write your commentary about Nancy Pelosi, stop for a moment. The speaker of the House has been quoted as saying she supported the Fairness Doctrine by John Gizzi, Political Editor of Human Events, which calls itself the “Headquarters of the Conservative Underground.” He asked a yes-no question and she said yes at a Christian Science Monitor luncheon they both attended. She also said no, she didn’t think it would come to the floor for a vote. It is an issue for which the speaker does not express a majority opinion.

Perhaps someone can also explain how it is it that conservatives (“disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change”) use the word liberal as an adjective of derision as in the term liberal media or liberal socialist agenda such as “state aid for the betterment of the working classes.” That socialism is some kind of evil.

How could mainstream media be anything other than liberal (“favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties”)? Being liberal minded requires reporting both sides of any issue, which defines fairness in and of itself without any regulation to be fair.

The conservative mantra that their champion Ronald Reagan struck down the Fairness Doctrine is incorrect. His son Michael claims in his blog, Michigan Redneck II, “My dad, President Reagan, killed the ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ As a result, this rule change allowed Rush, Hannity, and me to have radio talk shows — that’s why the new proposal to bring it back is being called the ‘Hush Rush’ bill. Now the liberals are dying to shut us up.”

No, the president did not. The
FCC overturned the regulation. What President Reagan did was to veto a congressional attempt to make the regulation a law. The Supreme Court set the stage for the FCC to dump the regulation in 1984 (FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364). The regulation came up again in 1993 and failed. Neither Congress nor the Clinton administration supported it.

There is a difference between a regulation and a law. Section 315 of the
Communications Act of 1937 was federal law passed by Congress. It required broadcast stations to offer "equal opportunity" to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station. The Fairness Doctrine was simply FCC policy, a regulation the FCC dumped as unconstitutional in 1987. After Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the Supreme Court declared that the Doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it.

For the record, as an independent regulatory agency, the FCC has the power to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine at anytime without action by either the executive or legislative branches. It should not be confused, but often is, with the Equal Time rule. The Fairness Doctrine deals with matters of public importance, not political opinion. The Equal Time rule only deals with political candidates.

Nonetheless a fake debate about the Fairness Doctrine continues. “In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide. Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats. Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives' dominance,” George Will wrote in the Washington Post.

Will’s colleague
Michael Gerson wrote that “three hours of Rush Limbaugh on a radio station would have to be balanced by three hours of his liberal equivalent. This may sound fair and balanced. But it would destroy the profitability of conservative talk radio and lead other outlets to avoid political issues entirely -- actually reducing the public discussion of controversial issues.” They also both wrote that in 1987 President Reagan “eliminated” (Will) or “overturned” (Gerson) the 1949 FCC regulation.

While they are both wrong about Reagan, they do not demonstrate much knowledge about radio. If conservatives dominate talk radio, it is because it’s cheap. Talk radio doesn’t cost a radio station anything except electricity. Typically the air-time is brokered and the talker pays for the time. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, for example, are not so much radio personalities as they are media companies. Their concern about the Fairness Doctrine is literally lip service.

They do have large audiences and wield influence. Sometimes their influence works against them. One of my former radio colleagues, Gary Nelson of WFOR TV4 Miami, recently wrote, “About the vitriol on talk radio, in doing a piece the day after the election, on Bush losing the Hispanic vote, I interviewed a Colombian-American voter who said he had been a Republican all his life and had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. He said the ‘mean-spirited’ attacks on Obama changed him. ‘Rush Limbaugh cost John McCain my vote,’ he said.”

President Barack Obama is expected to appoint longtime friend Julius Genachowski as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Genachowski also has a Harvard background as a legal scholar and was a Supreme Court law clerk. That may lead him to play a stronger role in determining legal strategy on FCC court cases, normally a Justice Department task. When Genachowski does become FCC chairman, his biggest immediate task will be working on the digital TV transition. The Fairness Doctrine does not appear on his docket.

As to the conservative assertion that the White House will sign Fairness Doctrine legislation, that is far from likely. The President opposes it. As he said in his inaugural address, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

The broadcast media of 1949 has its own chapter in history, as will the Internet sixty years from now. Today we have right wing and left wing media. Some are even in the middle. There is one thing that Rush and both Lauras have to fear about being silenced: listeners changing stations. As to a new, improved, rebranded Fairness Doctrine, forget about it. It is not going to happen.
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Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine, February 1 2009

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