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‘Fairness doctrine’ farce
Like witch doctors conjuring up zombies in a bad B-movie, certain members of Congress are trying to bring the Fairness Doctrine back from the grave. Forget it, folks. Changing times already put a stake through its heart.
I don’t say that as an enemy of fairness or balance. I say it as a former broadcast industry insider who has seen old media and political giants humbled by mavens of the new media.
My education began when I ran the community affairs department at the CBS-owned television station in Chicago for two years in the early 1980s. The three big networks were losing their audience to new time-devouring innovations as varied as video games, cable TV networks and 24-kilobyte personal computers.
The good news for broadcasters was that government deregulation, which began under President Jimmy Carter before President Ronald Reagan expanded it, was beginning to take hold. One Federal Communications Commission policy, known as the Fairness Doctrine, required broadcasters to air contrasting views on controversial issues. The balance didn’t have to be anywhere near 50-50, but stations had to make an effort.
In 1987, the FCC decided the policy frightened broadcasters away from taking on controversy at all, if they could help it. With the emergence of alternatives like cable television, the doctrine was no longer needed, the FCC decided. No problem. Major broadcasters, like the one for whom I worked, valued their licenses too highly to risk upsetting local audiences by ignoring their concerns.
In fact, I discovered we could broadcast a wide variety of controversial guests and topics, as long as we aired them during late night “public affairs time” on the weekends. “Everything said on TV after midnight is the truth,” a witty senior producer advised me.
That was then. The new-media explosion of political talk-radio and cable-TV argument shows turned upsetting the public into a highly profitable enterprise. By the mid-1990s, George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate,” in which people yelled at video screens each day in “1984,” seemed to come to life in a 24/7 festival of talk-media outrage.
Meanwhile, the public affairs time we Americans once cherished on local stations has been largely gobbled up by infomercials for tummy tucks, golden-oldie rock CDs and retirement homes in Florida.
That brings us to the recent effort by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who is running for president, to hold hearings to revive the Fairness Doctrine. Media consolidation has made it harder for some voices to be heard, he says. Besides, with Democrats back in power in the House, he would like Democrats to try to restore the doctrine simply because they can. Maybe.
Conservative talk radio hosts, eager to find evidence of their oppression to talk about, cried foul. A measure by Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a former radio talk show host, to block the FCC from reviving the doctrine passed 309-115 in June with strong Republican support.
But support for the doctrine came from a less liberal corner when the Senate’s immigration bill died under a lava flow of opposition enflamed by right-wing radio. “Talk radio is running America,” true-right Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi fumed to the New York Times. “We have to deal with the problem.”
That’s gratitude for you. I don’t remember Mr. Lott complaining about reining in those talk radio folks when they were on his side.
But most recent Fairness Doctrine support has come from Democrats like Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois and John Kerry of Massachusetts. I don’t know why they bother, unless they hope to make media giants like Rupert Murdoch tremble a little in their sleep at night.
In fact, the alleged virtues and evils of the Fairness Doctrine have been greatly exaggerated. Liberals and progressives should be pleased that even the giant megaphone of conservative talk radio could not save Republicans from the thumping voters gave them at the polls last November. But it also could never guarantee that people will listen to a viewpoint, no matter how often you offer it.
The survival of our democracy ironically requires tolerance not only for your intelligent adversaries but also for the willfully ignorant. With or without a Fairness Doctrine, some people will choose to stick with only one point of view, promoted by their favorite gasbag and uninterrupted by any challenges to their cherished prejudices. You can lead people to facts like you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them think.
By David Keene
Conference showed that the values Reagan cherished still endure
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