October 13, 2007

October 13, 2007 | Commentary on

Fairness Doctrine Future

Liberals lawmakers again would like to exhume the obsolete Fairness Doctrine. It dates to 1949 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that broadcasters cover controversial issues in a "balanced and fair" manner -- i.e., give air time to all sides.

Not surprisingly, the rule backfired. As Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) explain, "broadcasters often opted not to offer any controversial programming whatsoever rather than risk … being subject to federal fines or risking revocation of their licenses."

Thankfully, the rule was repealed in 1987, thus ushering in the golden age of conservative talk radio.

Now, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate's second ranking Democrat, and many of his liberal colleagues want to resurrect the Doctrine. The reason? First, Durbin says: "The airwaves belong to the American people." Second: "Those who use the people's airwaves to make a profit … do it with a license from our government." Third: "Those who use those airwaves should do it responsibly and should seek to provide … both sides of the story so that Americans can reach a decision."

The liberal case rests on this reciprocal obligation: We grant you a license to use part of the broadcast spectrum; you agree to air a diverse set of views on the issues of the day. When liberals look at the decidedly conservative hue of talk radio, they see not a market referendum on behalf of conservative views, but a gross violation of this public trust.

Liberals insist that talk radio audiences actually are ideologically diverse. Never mind the actual Arbitron ratings. They insist that, given a chance, "progressive" shows can succeed, as one has in … err … Portland, Ore. Based on this flimsy evidence, the liberal Center for American Progress concludes: "The market solution has clearly failed to meet audience demand."

Huh?

Not surprisingly, liberals are content to maintain the previous scope of the Doctrine -- i.e., broadcast television and AM and FM radio. Other communication and media outlets that require government licenses or rights-of-way, such as satellite-based communications and the information technology delivered into your home over your phone and cable lines -- most prominently cable television and the Internet -- would be exempt.

But the logic underlying the Fairness Doctrine could apply to these other "public goods." If "the airwaves belong to the American people," as Durbin argues, what about the "rights of way" that governments grant to phone and cable companies before they dig up our streets and wire our communities? Or the spectrum licenses Uncle Sam grants to private firms that launch and operate communications satellites? Even newspapers, before they can use the "people's" sidewalks to set up their vending machines, must first get local officials to approve.

Under Durbin's logic, for-profit entities that benefit from these "public goods" should incur the same reciprocal responsibility to "provide … both sides of the story so that Americans can reach a decision."

Of course, the potential implications are endless, and downright frightening. If the major networks must air competing views, why not CNN, FOX and other cable news outlets? Should liberal blogs like the Daily Kos and Huffington Post (that benefit from access to phone and cable lines) be required to post contrarian conservative views? Virtually every major newspaper maintains a Web site, and many use radio spectrum technology to transmit content to regional printing facilities so readers in far-flung jurisdictions can get hard copies of their favorite hometown paper. Should this require The New York Times to reprint Heritage Foundation policy briefs?

Local phone companies profit when advocacy groups use phone banks to place thousands of calls on controversial issues into the districts of targeted lawmakers (think SCHIP). Should opponents be granted free use of the phone lines to offer voters an alternative view?

The "right of way" granted to Internet providers enables netroots like Moveon.org to raise money, mount petition drives, disseminate talking points, and pressure lawmakers. Should they be required to provide their ideological adversaries the opportunity to post "balanced and fair" responses on their sites?

Ultimately, even non-political companies that simply advertise products that provoke controversy (think of how Hummers set off environmentalists or how fast-food ads give heartburn to the health police) could fall within the orbit of the Doctrine.

Applying the Fairness Doctrine selectively to the most reliably conservative form of media -- talk radio -- and exempting other, more liberal media exposes the revivalists' real agenda: Suffocate the conservative voice that informs you during drive time or in your living room.

Michael Franc is vice president of government relations for The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events