The single thing that keeps the radical right from confronting unpleasant realities is the deeply held belief that The Media -- monolithic, dark, as ever-present as a monster under the bed -- are controlled and manipulated by activist liberals who slant the news to the advantage of Democrats. I have otherwise rational Republican friends who talk about the "free ride" President Clinton got, for example, and who dismiss every criticism of President Bush as evidence of media "Bush hatred." They believe that The Media want the United States to lose the War on Terror and will not rest until socialism reigns across This Great Land of Ours.
There's no quicker way for me to run up my comment count than to point out that the pervasive, establishment liberalism that was media reality 20 years ago is dead and gone. What liberalism there is is now buried beneath layers of ridiculous "balance" that prevents the media from questioning obvious lies but also keep the professional whiners and bitchers of the right from calling for advertiser boycotts. The belief that journalists everywhere are unified and conspiring against conservatives creates an end-justifies-the-means mentality on the right that enables Fox News to be seen as a well-deserved rough justice.
In general, an objective look at the broadcast media today shows an overwhelming conservative bias. With the exception of Kieth Olberman, prime-time cable news is the exclusive domain of hard-right conservatives. Talk radio is venomous in its uniform and radical conservatism. Network news, whatever its history or tendencies, overwhelmingly favors conservative talking points and talking heads. Local newscasts reflect the Chamber of Commerce sensibilities of their advertisers and elderly audience.
And so it is that politicians of the left are contemplating the return of the Fairness Doctrine, a Federal Communications edict requiring broadcasters to present both sides of political issues.
The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees" and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues.
The Fairness Doctrine was created at a time when even the most vibrant media markets had only a couple of TV channels and there were just over 1,000 radio stations nationwide. It's worth noting that Fairness Doctrine, when enacted, was a liberalization of communications regulations, replacing the previous Mayflower Doctrine, which banned all editorializing by broadcasters.
The Fairness Doctrine was abandoned during the Reagan Administration. Among those favoring its demise were conservative broadcasters who wanted to use their ownership of media to advance their political cause.
In the intervening years we've seen the fruits of "unfairness." There is no question but that the number of conservative voices in broadcasting has skyrocketed. And there is equally no question that our political dialog has become more shrill and polarized because both broadcasters and viewers/listeners are able to isolate themselves from opposing points of view.
The Democrrats are talking up a return of the Fairness Doctrine as a means of addressing the kind of media minority status Republicans enjoyed for years. They're stepping into the breach to address the vast and politically inconvenient injustice of conservative media supremacy, contemplating a revival of days gone by.
Per his telegraph to a media reform conference last week, Ohio Democratic Representative and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has been named head of a new House Domestic Policy Subcommittee and he plans to hold hearings on media ownership with an eye toward a reintroduction of the fairness doctrine.
We live in an era of terrible ideas, but Unitary Executive theory, campaign finance reform and the McGriddle sandwich have got nothing on a return of the Fairness Doctrine.
Leaving aside the simple and obvious fact that the Fairness Doctrine is a gross violation of the First Amendment, consider what would be necessary to enforce the damned thing. Imagine the niggling bureaucracy that would have to be empowered, the all-powerful bureaucrats with stop watches who would have the power to dictate what you and I see and hear on the air. Imagine the huge disruption of broadcast schedules as they order half of talk radio to be replaced by...well, by what, exactly? Liberalism seems not to be a viable programming format for radio, for reasons no one is quite able to discern. It's an ideology that flourishes in the chaos of the Internet, but dies in the top-down passivity of radio.
One of the enabling conceits of the Fairness Doctrine is that there are two sides to every issue. In fact, there are hundreds of sides to every issue, and forcing broadcasters to distill that down to two would do nothing to enrich our political dialog.
So, after creating a giant and all-powerful government regulator of speech, we would end up with an information environment that is comparatively flaccid and sterile, that is at once more difficult to function in and less fulfilling for its audience. The only group that will have benefited from the change will have been the government class, the regulators who achieve job security and the politicians who have another cudgel with which to beat their subjects into submission.
This might be an acceptable trade-off were there a significant problem in need of a drastic solution, but there isn't. The media environment of today is richer and more democratic than any in history. Big Media everywhere are holding symposia about how they're going to survive the onslaught of diverse voices. The Chairman of NBC doesn't lose sleep over ABC's program development slate, but over YouTube. The caretakers of big media shareholder value know that at this very moment there's some kid in Kansas cutting together a two-minute parody that's going to go up on the web and steal a couple of million demographically desirable eyeballs away from tomorrow night's multi-million dollar prime time schedule. They know that, over time, all those minutes interacting on the Internet translate to smaller audiences and lower revenues.
I've got a basic cable package that gives me about 100 channels, half of which I black out because surfing through them is more trouble than it's worth. There are more than 10 times as many radio stations today as there were when the Fairness Doctrine was first proposed. I listen to the radio twice a day for 10 minutes at a time, driving to and from lunch. (I listen to Rush so I have something to complain about in the afternoon.) I barely even watch TV any more, finding my entertainment in the infinite diversity of the web, and I'm an old guy far removed from anything that could be called The Digital Generation. My kids have no idea that NBC, ABC and CBS should enjoy any special status over, for example, Nickelodeon or the public access channel.
The "problem" the new Fairness Doctrine would address is primarily conservative talk radio. This is a broadcasting format that is evidence that radio, as a medium, is dying. Talk radio is what radio stations did in the 1980s when more ambitious formats were rendered economically obsolete by advancing technology. Radio -- particularly low-fi AM radio -- was reduced to putting one person in front of one microphone to invite people to call in and bitch about stuff. And who called-in in the middle of the day? Was it well-adjusted, fully employed people leading rich and fulfilling lives? Of course not. It was disaffected curmudgeons who wouldn't have any kids to yell at ("get the hell offa my lawn!") until the schools let out. That people like Rush Limbaugh were creative enough to develop marketable audiences from this wretched raw material is nearly a miracle. That those audiences are made up of people who are interesting primarily to manufacturers of patent medicines and get-rich-quick schemes is further proof that this is a medium on the wane, not the rise.
But talk radio is an inconvenience to todays' Democratic politicians, and possessing once again the political muscle to enforce their own comfort they're ready to create a giant censorship bureaucracy to make it a little easier for them to operate without criticism. That bureaucracy will surely outlast Rush and the rest, while perpetuating the belief that it is government's job to regulate the flow of information.
There's absolutely nothing fair about the whole idea of the Fairness Doctrine. That it is being revived by people who call themselves "liberals" is a disgrace. Liberalism is predicated on tolerance, even of ideas and methods and tones-of-voice of which we don't approve.
If it is the goal of the current Democrats in power to prove that they've learned nothing in the last 20 years, re-enacting the Fairness Doctrine would do the job. It would prove that they continue to believe that government can dictate outcomes. Justify the Fairness Doctrine and you justify a whole raft of other terrible ideas, from ethnic gerrymandering to slavery reparations. Pass the Fairness Doctrine and the Democrats will prove that they're no more concerned about American liberty than Republicans are.