Congressional Democrats threaten to drag one of the worst ideas from the 20th century into the 21st — the Fairness Doctrine, the government regulation of political opinion on the airwaves.
The move cannot really be characterized as a thinly veiled attempt to silence the yelp of right-wing talk radio - to “hush Rush” Limbaugh, shush Sean Hannity, and stifle Laura Ingraham - because there’s nothing veiled about this naked deployment of state power to intimidate the ideological opponents of renascent liberalism.
Unlike print media, the electronic (and now digital) media are unnamed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and thus more vulnerable to government restrictions on freedom of expression.
Moreover, because radio and television signals flow over the airwaves, broadcasters have always conceded the need for a regulatory traffic cop to avoid signal overlap and station interference. In this spirit, the Federal Communications Act of 1934 established technical guidelines for station allocation and empowered the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enforce the rules of the road.
Yet the New Deal legislation also defined the airwaves as a public trust to be operated “for the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Besides encouraging the setting aside of airtime for public interest programming (which broadcasters typically consigned to the ratings basement of Sunday morning), the act contained an “equal time” provision to nurture a fair hearing for all candidates at election time. (The Equal Time provision and the Fairness Doctrine are often confused. Equal time applies to political candidates; the fairness doctrine to political discourse. Equal time derives from the 1934 statute; the Fairness Doctrine from a series of FCC policy decisions.)
However noble the original intent, the Equal Time provision shut down rather than opened up conversations. One reason radio and television networks were so timorous in opposing Sen. Joseph McCarthy was that a direct editorial attack entitled him to equal air time to respond. On March 9, 1954, when “See It Now” telecast Edward R. Murrow’s famed “A Report on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy,” Murrow felt obliged to offer McCarthy a full 30-minute episode to counter the criticisms - which McCarthy took advantage of the next month.
When not an outright conversation killer, the provision was apt to be a major waste of energy. In 1956, to allow President Eisenhower to deliver a charity plea on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” CBS solicited “equal time” waivers from all 14 of his rivals for the presidency that year.
In 1959, as a necessary precondition to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, Congress scuttled the equal time provision by exempting “bona fide” news events from the 50-50 quota, but the Fairness Doctrine lived on.
In 1964, the FCC reaffirmed the policy by decreeing broadcasters had an “affirmative duty” to encourage a diversity of on-air opinion. Agents of the FCC, dubbed “Fox Charlies” by wary station managers, badgered broadcasters to defend news judgments and provide a counterpoint to every point. Needless to say, the surveillance was not always disinterested. In 1968, the FCC pressured the networks to justify their extensive coverage of the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. During the 1980 presidential campaign, opponents of Ronald Reagan semi-seriously suggested that telecasts of old Reagan movies such as “Bedtime for Bonzo” and “Hellcats of the Navy” might entitle them to compensatory airtime. (Reagan responded good-humoredly that it would be fairer to give him free air time to respond to those films.)
In 1987, concluding that the federal government had no right to control conversations over the airwaves, the FCC itself relegated the Fairness Doctrine to the dustbin of censorship history along with the Comstock Act and the Hollywood Production Code.
The concept seemed safely dead until the Democrats roared to power last November. Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Tom Harkin of Iowa have been the loudest voices calling for reviving the Fairness Doctrine, but Bill Clinton has also signaled his support.
Apparently, despite the recent brush-off from President Obama and its own digital nomenclature, the 111th Congress is determined to get back to Analog (the retro-media colors of the new Congress were also evident in its postponement of Digital Day from Feb. 17 to June 12, 2009).
With a few laudable exceptions, such as Salon’s reliably mouthy Camille Paglia, free-speech liberals have kept their traps shut about the proposed clampdown. Perhaps they’re miffed because talk radio is the sole media arena that liberals have failed to crack. The Air America experiment in “progressive talk radio” drones on, but listeners with a taste for edgy political patter gravitate in droves to the right-of-center dial.
Followers of Marshall McLuhan wonder if liberal voices are just too cool and linear to thrive in the hot air environment of talk radio. Certainly any format that can render Janeane Garofalo unamusing can’t be inherently congenial to lefties.
Equal time provisions and fairness doctrines might have been defensible in 1934 or 1964, but in an age in which you need a map to navigate the options on satellite radio, cable television, and the Internet, the notion that the airwaves should be measured and monitored by federal agents is by turns sinister and silly. Not satisfied with ideological dominance of major networks, big-city newspapers and Hollywood, the Democrats now seek to muzzle the ratchet-jaws of right-wing talk radio. It just doesn’t seem fair.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University.