Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fairness Doctrine: Liberal Strategy to Muzzle Conservative Talk Radio

From Imprimis, an essay by civil libertarian Nat Hentoff on attempts to revive the “Fairness Doctrine” in broadcasting.

Such attempts, of course, come from liberals. For generations liberals claimed to be the heirs of John Stuart Mill, believing in free speech. But faced with a media landscape where conservatives now have a voice, there has been some “re-thinking.”

The term “Fairness Doctrine” exemplifies what George Orwell called “Newspeak”: it uses language to mask the deleterious effects of its purported meaning. The Fairness Doctrine itself was in effect from 1949 until 1987. It required that radio broadcasts devote a reasonable amount of time to the discussion of controversial issues of public importance, and that the broadcaster do that fairly by offering reasonable opportunity for opposing viewpoints to be heard. If the Federal Communications Commission found a radio station in repeated violation of this Doctrine, it could take away the station’s license — a business form of capital punishment.

[. . .]

I was in radio under the reign of the Fairness Doctrine, at WMEX in Boston in the 1940s and early 50s. We did not have any of the present-day contentious talk radio shows, but we covered politics and politicians. I was often the announcer for the mellifluous appearance of the legendary James Michael Curley (played by Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah). And we did offer political opinions on the air. I, for example, did so on my jazz and folk music programs.

Suddenly, Fairness Doctrine letters started coming from the FCC and our station’s front office panicked. Lawyers had to be summoned; tapes of the accused broadcasters had to be examined with extreme care; voluminous responses had to be prepared and sent. After a few of these FCC letters, our boss announced that there would be no more controversy of any sort on WMEX. We had been muzzled.

[. . .]

The Current Debate

On May 9, 2005, in the magazine In These Times, University of Michigan communications professor Susan Douglas made the case for reviving the Fairness Doctrine—and listen carefully to her language: “Ongoing media consolidation, and the censorship and pro-right blather that go with it, are sustained by the silencing of oppositional voices Americans are no longer required to hear.” But who should do the requiring? According to Professor Douglas, the government should, of course. Another question is: Which voices are being silenced, and by whom? The professor neglected to say. Not hers, obviously.

Last year, a book widely praised in certain circles, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy — at least the title tells you where the authors, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, are coming from—argued:

It is precisely the proliferation of new media that has fostered a strongly right-wing journalistic presence in talk radio and on cable.... The Federal Communications Commission…surely can justify restoring the simple requirement that news include a fair representation of views on controversial subjects and in important electoral races.
There are still some libertarians on the American left who believe that the First Amendment means what it says, but these others who are calling for this revival of government involvement in broadcast content — and this could well extend to the Internet, as it does today in China — take sides against Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in 1929 in United States v. Schwimmer: “…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Those rallying for the return of the Fairness Doctrine believe that politically incorrect speech must be “balanced” by law — which is to say, by government. Thereby they fondly envision the curbing of the speech of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge, Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly and others who they say are “eroding” American democracy. And arguing this, it is as if they think that the speech of the authors of Off Center — or of Al Franken, Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, political scientists Barbra Streisand and Whoopi Goldberg, and the bankrollers of MoveOn.Org — are not heard enough today!
Hentoff, like any civil libertarian, realizes that, while “fairness” is a good thing, allowing government to decide what is fair is terribly dangerous.

Further, the “Fairness doctrine” would not touch those parts of the news media where liberals have an advantage. It would not require that the New York Times to hire one conservative columnist for every liberal columnist on staff. It would not require the Journal-Sentinel to run one conservative editorial to balance every liberal editorial they run. It would not require that Time Magazine publish one story with a pro-Bush spin for every story with an anti-Bush spin they run.

It would not require CBS News to tout the questionable aspects of John Kerry’s service record if they portray George Bush as a poor soldier.

The purpose, in other words, is explicitly to shut up conservative voices.

It says so very much about liberalism these days that they feel that, in the free market of ideas, they are at a disadvantage. Thus they feel the need to tilt the playing field to favor themselves.

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