Nothing’s Fair About Forcing Broadcasters to Air Content

Originally posted: September 20, 2008

by Jeffrey M. McCall

Imagine you are trying to convince someone of your point of view. Now consider how much real freedom of speech you have if, after making your point, you had to then argue against your own position. That is exactly the situation broadcasters faced for decades under the poorly named Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine mandated that broadcasters provide balanced coverage of controversial issues. To avoid federal second-guessing and expensive lawsuits, most broadcasters chose to say nothing. In effect, while trying to mandate “fairness,” the government instead stifled broadcast discussion. Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission discarded the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Broadcasting and democracy have done just fine ever since, with nearly 2,000 radio stations now providing the conversation of democracy in talk formats, compared to about 200 back then.

Indiana Congressman Mike Pence, a former broadcaster, is now working to pass the Broadcaster Freedom Act, which would ensure the Fairness Doctrine never returns. His efforts have been stalled, however, by the Democratic leadership of the House. Pence is trying to gather enough signatures on a discharge petition, which would force an up or down vote on the Broadcaster Freedom Act this fall. Pence has 196 of the 218 signatures he needs to force a vote, but no Democrats have yet signed on. Odds are that even those Democrats who are sympatheticwon’t buck the leadership before November’s election.

Pence predicts the Fairness Doctrine, or some equivalent, would be enacted if Barack Obama becomes president. Although a campaign spokesman has indicated that Obama does not favor the doctrine, Pence is skeptical that Obama would veto such a bill delivered by a Democratic Congress. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell recently warned that reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine could be in the offing, and the initiative could ultimately involve the Internet neutrality debate.

Powerful voices have already shown their cards. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said a month ago that he didn’t see Pence’s bill getting to the House floor, expressing concern about the “skewering of information that the American public gets,” as if it is any business of Congress to manage what information the news media disseminate.

Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California also are ready to mandate content requirements on broadcasters. “These are public airwaves, and the public is entitled to a fair presentation,” Feinstein said last year.

The call for “fairness,” however, is a red herring. The bigger issue is whether the federal government should insert itself into matters of political and news content. The First Amendment says nothing about fairness. Fairness is a matter of media professionalism, and broadcasters who don’t serve effectively will lose their audiences.

Most proponents of a new Fairness Doctrine actually want to slow down the influence of talk radio, much of which comes from a right-of-center perspective. A study last year by the Center for American Progress found that conservative commentators get more radio airtime than liberals by a 9-to-1 margin. That fact, however, fails to justify tarnishing the First Amendment as the government tries to enhance public conversations.

Pence says that “fairness” forced by government would destroy talk radio, particularly religious radio. Stations would choose not to speak at all rather than be forced to air content they don’t support. “Religious stations discuss a wide range of public policy issues, including abortion. They could not and would not air two sides of such issues,” Pence said.

Harry Truman once said, “You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper.” That applies to the broadcasting world, too. It is up to citizens to get information from multiple sources, and Congress has no role in ensuring that happens.

Jeff McCall is Professor of Communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences

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