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Screw the Fairness Doctrine

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It was 80 years ago when the US government attempted to rein in a new communication technology – radio – that was quickly becoming a chaotic landscape. The Radio Act of 1927 (an offshoot of the Radio Act of 1912, which pertained mostly to communication between ships) sought to regulate the airwaves, which, it was rightfully determined, belonged to the public. The law instigated the creation of the Federal Radio Commission, which had the power to oversee broadcasting licenses and appoint frequencies. As far as programming content was concerned, there were two dicta: no “obscene, indecent, or profane language” and an “equal time rule” which applied to political candidates during elections. The FRC eventually morphed into the Federal Communications Commission, and the equal time rule found new footing as the Fairness Doctrine, designed to ensure that all communication utilizing the public bandwidth, which by now included broadcast television, presented all issues of controversy in a fair and balanced manner and did not stray into the realm of propaganda. In 1985, at the height of the Reagan administration, the Fairness Doctrine began to be systematically dismantled under Chairman Mark S. Fowler, and by 1987 it was history. Which, believe it or not, was actually a good thing as the situation applies to communications today, because the Fairness Doctrine is better in theory than in practice. Right now talk radio is widely regarded as the province of the political right, with guys like Rush Limbaugh (who came to prominence amid the fall of the doctrine in the ’80s) and Sean Hannity bolstering the viewpoints of their listeners. Network television news, which also rides the public airwaves, is widely perceived as left-leaning, and while we could go back and forth about that one all day, it’s generally true that viewers are spared the rabid dogma of the far right in favor of three-minute spots about back-to-school shopping or stories pinched from local dailies. And there are also websites, podcasts, internet news aggregators and other information disseminators that refuse to be lumped into one category or another. The landscape has changed, though it resembles the halcyon days of radio now more than ever. There is renewed effort in Washington to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, and ironically it seeks not to bring fairness back to the airwaves, but to modify the thrust of conservative talk radio programs, even entire stations. The movement’s main boosters are Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and, surprisingly, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate majority leader who sounds less and less like a Republican every day. Their impetus is the hotly contested immigration bill, which is being lambasted on right-wing radio talk shows using buzzwords like “amnesty” and catchphrases like “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” to mobilize their mouthbreathing listeners. This new iteration of the Fairness Doctrine, which admittedly has yet to gain serious momentum, will seek to make mandatory the airings of views that oppose those expressed by the right-wing radio hosts. And it’s no good, first and foremost because it is a thinly veiled attempt to answer criticism with legislation, and the fact that those who would have the doctrine reinstated are regularly eviscerated by right-wing talk-show hatemongers does not go unnoticed. It is also bad business. Since the doctrine was struck down by presidential veto in the ’80s, talk radio has become part of the realm of the right, with legions of listeners whose capacity for having their own narrow viewpoints shouted back at them is astounding, but viable enough that media empires have been built upon it. Forcing stations like this to add Al Franken to the lineup will do nothing but cause an hours-long slough in the ratings when the Rush Limbaugh fans either turn off the radio or pop in a Toby Keith CD. Besides, Franken had a radio show – an entire network, actually – and it failed to gain traction even in the bluest of markets. We submit to those who seek to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine that there are more choices for news now than ever before, and the people who rely solely on talk radio for their information are lost to the principle of enlightened debate anyway, not worth seeking to rehabilitate through an impotent policy of equal time. And we suggest to those looking for viewpoints alternative to those expressed by Limbaugh and his ilk that they avoid radio altogether and read a newspaper.

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