18 November 2008

Is Fairness Unfair?

"You can't legislate fairness," Mr. Right said to me once upon a time. He was waxing philosophical then, at least by his standards, but it came as no surprise that he opposed the notion of reviving the Federal Communication Commission's "Fairness Doctrine," a rule that prevailed for broadcast media from 1949-87 that required broadcasters to provide time for contrasting viewpoints on political controversies. Mr. Right's position is the standard one for his kind: reviving the Doctrine is a plot by liberals to destroy conservative talk radio. How that would be accomplished is unclear, since the Doctrine wouldn't require any conservative host to be taken off the air. The objectionable aspect of its revival would more likely be the extinction of conservative talk stations as exclusive bastions of one-sided opinion. Stations would be required to diversify their programming to a minimal extent. That would be in keeping with the older idea of media that prevailed when the Doctrine was enacted. Then, radio and TV stations were considered public trusts and owners of frequencies were expected to make the airwaves available to a wide range of views. By the time the Doctrine was repealed, the proliferation of new media was already underway, and has accelerated since then. It could be argued that a growing multitude of media made access to one particular source less imperative. But the more important motive, I suspect, was the desire to privatize the perception of the media so that it was seen not as a public trust, but just as someone's personal property to dispose of as you pleased, like a newspaper or magazine. That'd be ironic if, as I guess, the Fairness Doctrine was instituted in order to prevent radio and TV from becoming equivalent to the news chains that served as little more than propaganda instruments for press magnates like Hearst and his rivals.

Mr. Right thinks that liberals want to revive the Doctrine because they're envious of the popularity of conservative radio and bitter over the poor fortunes of the Air America network. His view seems to be that liberal opinion has failed in the radio marketplace, and doesn't deserve any space on the dial if it can't earn any in the ratings. That's the wrong way to look at the matter. Conservatives, recall, started their talk radio movement because they felt excluded from the TV news media by institutional biases. It would border on hypocrisy to contend that any force, even the dread and holy marketplace, should have the power to exclude other points of view. So unless it can be proven that large numbers of conservative talkers would lose their jobs -- and I rather suspect that some of them would turn up as liberal talkers under new names -- I see no reason not to revive the Fairness Doctrine for radio and television. A similar doctrine already prevails here.

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