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Thursday, March 5th, 2009


I didn’t think the Democrats were stupid enough to start talking about reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. But I was wrong.

For those not up-to-date with the Fairness Doctrine controversy, it goes back to the late 1960s when the FCC began to push radio and television stations to air material about controversial matters including some consideration for both sides of the issue.1 The justification for this government interference was that with a very limited amount of media channels available, and with the airwaves owned by the public and merely licensed to the media companies profiting from them, this was a reasonable request and a necessary one in order to encourage an informed citizenry. By the late 1960s, the powerful corporate forces in the right-wing movement had begun to bankroll a conservative movement at this point – giving enormous amounts of money to create advocacy groups, think tanks, magazines, and other means of pushing conservative messages. One of their goals was to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine – and in 1987 they succeeded. At right about this time with no more obligation to be fair or present both sides of controversial issues, right-wing talk radio took off. Simon Rosenberg publicized this sequence of events – and Steve Rendall at Commons Dreams gives an overview of the liberal take on this history which is worth a read. Since then, conservative talk radio has mobilized the conservative movement – and perpetuated quite a few lies and distrortions. 

In this context, you can see why some Democrats want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  After all, if Steve Marlsburg, nemises of this blog, can use the public airwaves to talk for two hours about how Barack Obama is evil and no good people can support him and go on and on supporting this with one lie after another distortion, wouldn’t everyone benefit from a bit of the other side getting a word in edgewise? And if a handful of media titans control almost all of the media, the concentration of power in their hands ensures that opinions they agree with are aired – and oftentimes, that opinions they disagree strongly with are not aired. 

In this context, Bill Clinton mused about reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on a liberal radio show; Democratic Senator Stanbow wants hearings on something like a Fairness Standard; Senator Tom Harken was quoted on another liberal talk radio show saying, “We gotta get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again;” and a number of other Senators and Congressman have similarly suggested something be done to restore “fairness” to the radio.2 Barack Obama though made it clear during his campaign that he did not support this – and reiterated his opposition again after he took office.

And with good reason: reimposing the Fairness Doctrine might sound like a decent idea given the above history. But there are some major reasons not to:

  1. It won’t accomplish much. Cable and broadcast television shows already give alternative views on controversial issues. They might present one side much better than the other (think Hannity and Colmes) but they give the other side a platform as well. Listeners to conservative talk radio today choose to listen to right-wing nutjobs who don’t try to balance their opinion with facts over more serious sources of news. They have other options if they want them.
  2. It would endanger the important goal of net neutrality. Conservatives are already calling net neutrality a “Fairness Doctrine for the internet.” This is a ridiculous claim – but it will gain some credence if those who support net neutrality also support the Fairness Doctrine. The right continues to push this meme [pdf] and has been having some success in polarizing the support for net neutrality, picking off those right-wingers who are most gullible. As I wrote earlier about this campaign to link these two very different policy ideas
  3. [T]his propaganda campaign [to link net neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine] does not seem directed to the public at large, but at conservative activists. The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling. But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners. And although these groups are not large enough to force their way, they are large enough to derail the political conversation and make it harder to enact this obvious policy.

  4. It would also endanger other goals such as breaking up media monopolies. In terms of other issues, Rush Limbaugh in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed began to lump in rules about “local content” and “diversity of ownership” as the Fairness Doctrine by other means. Rush Limbaugh here is clearly carrying water for Clear Channel Communications who recently gave him a $400 million contract and who would be threatened by rules regarding local content and diversity of ownership as they already own such a large portion of America’s radio stations. Byron York followed Limbaugh’s lead repeating the same talking points in a recent column.
  5. It will provoke a backlash. Right now, aside from the musings of a few prominent liberals and impassioned editorials from liberal talk radio hosts themselves, there is no serious effort to push this idea forward. Liberal ideas are out there – on newspaper editorial pages, on political opinion shows, and most of all on the web. The people most excited by the revival of the Fairness Doctrine are the conservative talk radio hosts and the right-wing movement they lead. I follow this matter closely – reading most articles published on it – and almost every article I read is from some conservative publication or blog hyping the threat to free speech and all that is good and holy that is the Fairness Doctrine. Which is why the Heritage Foundation has this piece of trash written by Rory Cooper insisting that the White House is “rushing” to the Fairness Doctrine – despite the aforementioned opposition by the White House. (A propaganda outlet such as Heritage has not patience for such “subtlties” as facts.) Which is why Senator Inhofe is promoting the view that the Fairness Doctrine as yet another assault on the Christians. Which is why Bryon York recently penned a column linking the Fairness Doctrine to breaking up media monopolies as assaults on “media freedom.” Which is why the World News Daily has distorted Senator Sherrod Brown’s comments to claim he supports the Fairness Doctrine. Which is why Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the talking heads can’t shut up about it. This is a fight the right wants – and for good reason. It plays into the liberal stereotypes conservatives promote – especially the idea of a nanny-state attempt to control free speech. It makes the right look important; it makes the Democrats look petty; if the right loses, they will be able to claim the mantle of victimhood that conservatives seem to relish as much as any other group. 
  1. The Fairness Doctrine was actually created earlier, but it was not incorporated into FCC guidelines until the late 1960s. []
  2. It’s worth noting that all of these more recent comments were made by politicians on liberal talk radio – and only after being prompted by their hosts. []

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