Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fairness My Foot

Yesterday, Rush Limbaugh dedicated the entire third hour of his radio program to a "women's forum." This was a schtick where women were supposed to call in and tell Rush Limbaugh why they didn't like him, or why they find him offensive, or why other women they know find him offensive. Silly, really, since he could ask his ex-wives and probably get quite a personal earful. But here's a question for you: if the fairness doctrine were still around, would the station be required to give free air time to women who adore Rush Limbaugh (since for an hour there was talk of all his faults)? And an even more important question: Could Rush have taken that without an explosion of his already somewhat swelled-up head?

No, these are not really the things I ponder when I think of the fairness doctrine. 

I was actually trying to figure out what the fairness doctrine really was, to be honest. While I'm not really a spring chicken, the fairness doctrine was in effect before I was interested in paying attention to anything resembling news on the radio or television. (Yes, there actually was a time when I didn't have a high level of interest in current events - can you believe it?) So... a little mini-refresher course on the "fairness doctrine." 

First of all, it was quite poorly named as there really wasn't anything "fair" about it. The basic idea was that stations were required to air controversial issues of public interest (regardless of their chosen format) and were supposed to air them in a balanced manner. Sounds fair, right? One problem, though, is that it required that stations provide free air time for responses to any controversial opinions which were broadcast. 

Define "controversial" for me, will you? Isn't it any opinion which is likely to give rise to public disagreement? Wouldn't that be every opinion? I could say that it's chilly outside today and some people would disagree. 

Another question: Is there anybody out there who watches any news channel and thinks that the newscasters are simply reporting the news without any personal bias? Did anybody watch Peter Jennings when he was covering the election of 2000? 2004? As George W. Bush was winning, Mr. Jennings was almost visibly sucking on a lemon. Can anybody say with a straight face that Chris Matthews of "Hardball" is balanced? (I don't know that there are too many people who would even declare that man mentally balanced, much less say that he presents news in a balanced fashion. Especially since his leg started feeling shivers in 2008.) 

So, if group A gathers funds to air a spot on a topic near and dear to them - say, even, that they're wanting to air a spot to promote something as stupid as the "fairness doctrine" - and they finally get enough money to do so. They go through the work of making the spot, they pay for its airing, and the station gets a complaint from group B which says it's "controversial" and group B wants to be allowed to air a rebuttal. Why should group B get to air their rebuttal for free? How is this fair? 

It was the FCC under the Reagan Administration that ended up revoking the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan was advised at the time that it was politically unwise for him to do so as the "Fairness Doctrine" was "the only thing that really protects you from the savageness of the three networks." Regardless, Reagan supported the effort to repeal it. 

The Doctrine was officially abolished in August of 1987 with a 4-0 vote. According to the FCC at the time, "the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters... and actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists." It's good to know that there was a bureaucracy that, at one point, made a statement that made some sense. 

The Democrat-controlled Congress, in June of 1987, tried to preempt the decision by the FCC and wrote the Fairness Doctrine into law, but Reagan vetoed it. The Democrats tried one more time in 1991, but it didn't even make it to the President's desk as George H.W. Bush promised to veto it if it did. In 2005, the Democrats tried once again to introduce a "Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act" which would have shortened a license term and gave a requirement that "the license holder cover important issues fairly, hold public hearings about its coverage twice a year, and document to the FCC how it was meeting its obligations." This didn't make it out of committee. During that same year, another Democrat introduced H.R. 3302, the "Media Ownership Reform Act of 2005" which was intended to "restore the fairness doctrine." 

I guess Sinclair Broadcast Group during the 2004 election cycle had "pre-election plans to force its 62 stations to preempt prime-time programming in favor of airing the blatantly anti-John Kerry documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal." Supposedly, the company reversed its decision to do so as their stock declined. (Info taken from This same article states that, "Sinclair's history of one-sided editorializing and right-wing water-carrying, which long preceded its Stolen Honor ploy, puts it in the company of political talk radio, where right-wing opinion is the rule, locally and nationally. Together, they are part of a growing trend that sees movement conservatives and Republican partisans using the publicly owned airwaves as a political megaphone - one that goes largely unanswered by any regular opposing perspective. It's an imbalance that begs for a remedy." 

Frankly, this cracks me up. If we need a remedy to balance out talk radio, then how about a remedy to balance out the liberals on television? Are we going to balance out Keith Olbermann? Chris Matthews? Matt Lauer, for goodness sake? Katie Couric? Larry King? Bill Maher? 

How about some balance on paper? Can we balance out Gail Collins, Roger Cohen, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, and Paul Krugman at the New York Times with more than just David Brooks? What is it that makes the airwaves so much more subject to "balance" and control than the print media? What about the computer? Should the Huffington Post be required to post authors who aren't certifiably liberal? 

Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine is, for all intents and purposes, patently unfair. If it would truly bring fairness to the playing field of ideas, everybody would be in favor of it. Frankly, the conservatives have two media outlets. Talk radio is, by far, dominated by conservative thought. And FOX News, while being "fair and balanced" by giving liberals time to air their views, is generally dominated by conservative thought as well. All the other airwaves are dominated by liberal thought (including public television, which is funded by our tax dollars). 

I thus must conclude that those wishing to see the "fairness doctrine" (or some form of it) imposed are suffering from a serious case of sour grapes. As William F. Buckley Jr. said so well, "Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views." Since 1987, it has been shown that there are, indeed, other views in the world - and since 1987, liberals have been shocked and offended by the airing of these views. They've been trying to shut them up ever since. 

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