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Let fairness doctrine R.I.P.
Question of the Day
The conversation now about revival of the Fairness Doctrine, buried by the Federal Communications Commission 20 years ago, shows no idea ever dies. Even the worst ones.
The Fairness Doctrine’s original logic was that broadcast media were transmitted over limited public airwaves. Therefore, the federal government had an obligation to ensure that competing views were aired.
The FCC reasoned in 1987, when it closed the book on this doctrine, that emergence of cable to compete with broadcast had made media markets competitive enough to preclude government policing. If true 20 years ago, how much more so now. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2006 15 percent of Americans used the Internet as their primary source of political news, double that of the 2002 elections.
In other Pew research on media usage, those surveyed were presented with 16 alternative sources of news. Results show that, of those most informed, all use more than one source. Half of the most informed use seven different sources.
So if the openness and competitiveness of the information market today is so clear, with cable, satellite and the Internet in addition to broadcast media, why are we talking now about the Fairness Doctrine?
There appears to be two immediate sources of provocation.
First, a number of senators are unhappy about the defeat of the recent immigration legislation and blame the setback on conservative talk-radio hosts. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Richard Durbin of Illinois have called for reviving the Fairness Doctrine to put some kind of governor on the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Even a Republican senator, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said “talk radio is now running America.”
This is ridiculous. The Pew Center’s research shows a whopping 8 percent of those surveyed say they regularly listen to Rush. If he and other conservative radio hosts were “running America,” liberals like Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, certainly would not be holding the reins of power on Capitol Hill today.
Lou Dobbs, to state just one other source, pounded the immigration bill every single night on his prime-time CNN news show.
Second, a new paper published by the left-of-center Center for American Progress in Washington sends out the red alert that most of talk radio today is conservative. According to them, it’s 91 percent. But they themselves note that the Fairness Doctrine is pretty meaningless, and they want more aggressive federal intervention in issuing and managing local broadcast licenses.
A more careful look at the broad realities of media today can give us a hint at why broadcast talk radio, just one among a multitude of sources of information, is getting the attention it is.
Conservatives have not flourished in the talk-radio medium because of some anti-competitive stranglehold on this marketplace. Lots of attention has been given to the failure of the left-wing Air America. It was well-financed and had plenty of opportunity to make it. This was pure marketplace failure.
Conservative talk radio works because talk radio is a medium of the mind and of thinking and discourse. This works well for conservative and free-market ideas, which get sold on thought and logic.
Liberals will resent this assertion, but the liberal message is emotional, not logical. This is why it doesn’t work on talk radio. Liberalism operates by provoking emotions such as guilt, fear and envy. This works in sound bites and visual media, but not on talk radio.
Consider, alternatively, Michael Moore’s new movie on health care, “Sicko.” This is pure left-wing propaganda. But it is having great impact on the thinking in our country about health care.
The visual film medium lends itself more to the liberal message. You can pick out instances that support what you want to say, show them in a funny and entertaining way, and you have a hit. Anyone who tried to mass-market a film about health care, arguing why government regulations distort the market, and why freer markets would work better, would fail. Viewers would be squirming in their seats. But is anyone saying the government should get involved to muzzle Michael Moore?
How about so much of prime-time television, where social and political messages are buried surreptitiously in the context of shows labeled “entertainment” — “Oprah,” “The View,” “Gray’s Anatomy”? Should the government insist that the “700 Club” be run up alongside “Desperate Housewives”? The media market in America today is broad and varied.
Let’s understand that the left is zeroed in on talk radio because it is one medium that works well for the conservative message.
Let’s leave the Fairness Doctrine where it belongs. Resting in peace.
Star Parker is president of CURE, Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education (www.urbancure.org) and author of three books. This column was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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