EDITORIAL: Fairness Doctrine 2.0

The ‘news cops’ are out to shackle the free press again

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Fairness, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, but some of President Obama’s men are eager to tell everyone who’s pretty and who’s not. There’s a buzz inside the Federal Communications Commission to deputize the government once more as the news cop, commissioning bureaucrats to decide what’s fair and what isn’t. We don’t need a rocket scientist or even a shade-tree mechanic to see where that leads.

The commission laid the groundwork for this when it agreed to pay $900,000 for a “field study” in Columbia, S.C., to measure the “balance” of media content. The government wants to find out whether “government action is needed to ensure that the information needs of all Americans are being met, including women and minorities.” Without a federal study, apparently nobody would know “how the public acquires critical information” or “how the media ecosystem operates to provide this information.”

Members of the press may be flattered to learn they’re part of their very own “ecosystem,” but Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce communications and technology subcommittee bristled at a scheme they’ve labeled “Fairness Doctrine 2.0.” Members wrote to commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Dec. 10, warning him to back off, saying “we were shocked to see that the FCC is putting itself back in the business of attempting to control the political speech of journalists. It is wrong, it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the ‘news police.’”

The Fairness Doctrine was put in place in 1949 at the infancy of big broadcasting, when there were only a handful of radio and TV stations on the dial. The basic rule required broadcasters to air contrasting views on important political topics, but in practice stations avoided controversial programming to stay out of trouble with the FCC. People with contrarian views and messages were kicked off the air. Ronald Reagan’s appointees to the FCC dispensed with the shackles of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and talk radio was reborn. The Federal Communications Commission formally eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 2011, and everyone thought it would stay dead.

In an age when anyone with a smartphone can capture, comment or broadcast opinions about what’s happening around them, the Fairness Doctrine is useless, obsolete and unwanted. A Pew Research Center study in September found that 85 percent of the 316 million Americans use the Internet, and many of the rest don’t because they don’t want to. Neither members of minorities and women, nor anyone else is being left out of the audience. Media megamogul Oprah Winfrey owns her own TV network, which reaches 83 million American households, or about 73 percent of the nation. Arianna Huffington runs several popular Internet blogs, including the Huffington Post.

What irks the liberals isn’t that women and minorities are being left behind, but the fact that conservatives have learned to use the airwaves to get their winning message to the masses. Commissioning studies is the first step in the bureaucratic process of restoring the Fairness Doctrine. America needs a free press, not a “Fairness Doctrine 2.0.” Congress should save $900,000 by canceling this waste of taxpayer money, and tell the FCC to mind its own business.

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