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Fairness Doctrine

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I participated in NPR's discussion on the Fairness Doctrine.

Kim Pearson has a comprehensive post on the issue.

Some random thoughts:

1) Like Pearson, I had expected Prometheus 6 to come out stronger in favor of the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, he said there should be an "Honesty Doctrine." That's all well and good, but I seriously doubt that the government would be any better at enforcing an "Honesty Doctrine" than it would be at enforcing a "Fairness Doctrine." One major criticism of the Fairness Doctrine is that it made stations less likely to air some opinions because they then would have to air opposing opinions. When the result is "damned if you do, damned if you don't" with the government watching, the most logical approach is to do nothing. By doing "something," you give the government a reason to investigate you. But would the FCC investigate a station that aired no opinions. That's right, better to be damned if you don't without having any evidence...

2) Speaking of the term "Fairness Doctrine." I like it when government is clear about what it is doing. But "fairness"? Fairness to the Klan? To the Nation of Islam?

I like something David Boaz of the Cato Institute wrote last year about vague government terms: "The first restrictive immigration law was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (Ah, for the days when Congress gave laws honest names. These days, a tax scheme is called Social Security and a grab bag of civil liberties violations is dubbed the USA Patriot Act. Back in 1882, when Congress wanted to exclude the Chinese, they called it the Chinese Exclusion Act.)"

I'm adding that if Congress wanted to exclude the Chinese today, they'd name it the Chinese Residential Act of 2007. So when I hear vague terms like "Fairness" used by government I'm suspicious to begin with.

3) Believe it or not, but I was in the "moderate" role on Wednesday's show. I guess it is appropriate in some ways because I'm not a conservative, liberal, Democrat, or Republican. And that's why a big part of the Fairness Doctrine debate is boring to me. Pearson highlights the things that conservatives have said and attempts to rebut those things.

But this is an issue of government control, not just about ideology. It was Dan Rather, hardly a conservative, who helped sink the Fairness Doctrine.

As Rather testified in 1985 before the FCC: When I was a young reporter, I worked briefly for wire services, small radio stations, and newspapers, and I finally settled into a job at a large radio station owned by the Houston Chronicle. Almost immediately on starting work in that station's newsroom, I became aware of a concern which I had previously barely known existed--the FCC. The journalists at The Chronicle did not worry about it; those at the radio station did. Not only the station manager but the newspeople as well were very much aware of this government presence looking over their shoulders. I can recall newsroom conversations about what the FCC implications of broadcasting a particular report would be. Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost.

Pearson and others may think the Fairness Doctrine is no big deal because it allegedly only enforced in a few cases, but based on what Rather said (and, yes, I'm always cautious about what Rather says), the folks on the ground and on air were more concerned than those in Ivy towers.

Another interesting angle is that it was the Eagle Forum, Accuracy in Media, and some other conservative organizations that wanted the Fairness Doctrine extended. From my reading of this a few years ago, conservatives feared that without the Fairness Doctrine in place that their opinions would be completely shut out of the media.

They probably had no idea that their thinking was short-sighted--and, of course, they probably had no idea that the Internet would take off the way it has and that conservative talk radio would dominate as it has.

Of course people are concerned with correct information being disseminated, but asking the government to monitor the "fairness" or "honesty" of media would be the equivalent of having Barney Fife wave down traffic on the superinformation highway...

4) Pearson does point out that the Fairness Doctrine is not applied to cable. And I'll add: Let's keep it that way! As tempting as it would be to slap the Fairness Doctrine on universities or the Daily Kos, I still say it is better to keep the government from getting involved in information dissemination. If there must be a Fairness Doctrine, limit it to the Big 3 networks and government sponsored media outlets.

CJL

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