Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fairness Doctrine Revisited

Boots and Sabers author and West Bend News columnist, Owen Robinson, would have you believe that the Fairness Doctrine is an evil plot by liberals to cancel the free speech rights of conservatives. Robinson would be wrong for a number of reasons. Mostly because he doesn't let facts get in the way. Let's take a closer look at the pertinent parts of his Feb. 13 editorial in the West Bend News.

Robinson says this about the history of the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was an unconstitutional provision whereby the federal government used its power over the licensing of specific frequencies to dictate that the station owners provide "equal time" to opposing viewpoints. President Reagan rescinded the doctrine.
About the only thing correct about that paragraph is there was a president named Reagan and there was in existence something titled the Fairness Doctrine. First of all, there was nothing unconstitutional about the Fairness Doctrine., In fact, the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality by a vote of 8-0 in response to charges that the doctrine violated the First Amedment (Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969). Can't get much more constitutional than an 8-0 vote by the Supreme Court.

It wasn't until the advent of the Reagan Administration that the FCC, now staffed by Reaganites and headed by former Reagan campaign staff member Mark Fowler suceeded in overturning the doctrine. The reasons for this move -- conservatives who claimed the press was savaging Reagan (I don't recall the press letting up with Carter or Clinton, but then I guess liberals are not so thin-skinned). Want to get around constitutional protections, pack the FCC.

Secondly, the Fairness Doctrine had nothing to do with “equal time” as Robinson purports. The Fairness Doctrine required that controversial matters be discussed and opposing views be aired. Hardly a free speech barrier as Robinson states. Additionally, stations were given choices as to how to present these views, however equal time was not required for these views.

There was an Equal Time rule which applied only to political candidates and provided that the opposition be provided an equivalent chance to respond. Wow. Such clamping down on free speech.

In fact, if anything – considering that conservative thought and the Republican party were in minority status for 40+ years, you'd think they'd love the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time rule. Of course they had other things in mind. Note that Rush Limbaugh's national radio show began August 1, 1988, shortly after the FCC ruling on the doctrine.

The rest of Robinson's piece is mostly nonsense. To back up his attack on liberals and their supposed universal support of the Fairness Doctrine, he offers us an example of government regulation of newspapers on government roads. Huh? The problem with this silly analogy is there is no limit to the number of newspapers that can be printed, nor roads that can be traveled. Unlike broadcast frequencies which are a limited resource.

But it's all really a moot point. Personally, I think that attempting to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine is misguided. Twenty-first century communcation does not lend itself to government oversight, no matter how benevolent the intent may be. Regard the efforts of Communist China to rein in its increasingly electronic-savvy populace and you see the issue. If it is next to impossible to regulate in China, imagine the difficulty here.

That is why we should all join with Robinson and his cohorts to ensure the Fairness Doctrine is never reinstated. Back in the 20th century when conservative ideas were relegated to the background, not by delivery mechanism, but by the ideas themselves, conservatism floundered. Now, after a short hiatus in which Americans were hoodwinked by the lying liars on hate radio, the Republican party and its ideas have declined back into minority status. Why? It's because the more they spoke (and because of the rise of the Internet) people understood conservatism, weighted down by its prejudices, its bigotry and its lack of inertia does not represent what is best for this country.

So, let the conservatives spew their many strata of hate. It's best they be allowed to rant on hate radio. Nobody's gonna get fooled again anyway


  1. As usual, Robinson oversimplifies. This country has more than a century of government interference and involvement in telecom. It's no free market. How long were the Bells granted special status? Government favors continue to this day. Wisconsin's own telecom law was rewritten last year because ATT came to Madison, handed out money and a bill-mill draft of the new law. Does Owen think it's right for ATT to do that? Should ATT be able to examine and throttle Internet traffic? Using the wires we subsidized? Does he think it's a great idea that the government is tapping his Internet communications? Are over-the-air radio and TV broadcasters paying a fair market rate for their exclusive use of frequencies? Are cable operators paying their fair share for the use of the public right-of-way? Is there something wrong with the idea that a "Fairness Doctrine"-style channel slot might sell for less than a laissez-faire slot? Why are low-power local broadcasters effectively prohibited by the FCC? To what extent has government served to codify and protect particular broadcast technologies - again, using the same sort of public benefit argument?

  2. problem with this silly analogy is there is no limit to the number of newspapers that can be printed, nor roads that can be traveled. Unlike broadcast frequencies which are a limited resource.

    No, the problem is that "free speech" is not to be subject to Gummint regulation (see, e.g., the First Amendment.)

    And you know from technology--the number of broadcast frequencies is several orders of magnitude larger now than in 1980, or even in 2000.

  3. Regarding the 1st Amendment -- no kidding. However, the Supreme Court said the Doctrine did not infringe on the 1st.

    And regarding technology -- Yes, I know, including the Internet. If you would note, I do not support a return of the Fairness Doctrine.

  4. So Dad29, you think Janet Jackson's Super Bowl exposure shouldn't have been monitored by the FCC? Government shouldn't regulate what can appear on the daytime airwaves? What about commercial speech on a billboard? There seems to be plenty of government interference in communication that these same anti-FD conservatives love.

    And not only that, Dad29, but the concept of "frequency" gets fuzzy with spread-spectrum techniques that let differing devices share a region.