28 May 2007

An Unfair Doctrine

Recently, there has been a fair amount of talk about the “Fairness Doctrine”. According to various reports Democrats are attempting to resurrect “fairness” on license-requiring frequencies, namely broadcast television and radio.

In contrast to when it was first adopted in 1949 as an FCC rule (not as law), there are many, many more outlets for citizens to get news and information from. Most of the new media forms of delivery – cable television, satellite radio, internet – would not be subject to the rule. Moreover, more and more people are getting information from these other media. Additionally, there are cases where old and new media merge. Podcasting and streaming audio and video are used to promulgate content from broadcast media to new outlets, primarily using the internet. This makes it easier for many citizens to hear the views of those who take the time and effort to be heard. Contrast this with limited media in 1949. Perhaps the “Fairness Doctrine” made sense then when the number of broadcast stations was very limited. But today it would limit one category of media in a marketplace which is diverse and competitive. This is hardly fair.

Thus there is a basic issue of liberty tied in with reinstating the “Fairness Doctrine”. Given that the such a law, or rule, would impact only broadcast media, two targets are obvious. Even during my limited time in the US over the last year and a half, the tendency of broadcast television news to lean left, some further than others, is fairly obvious. Equally so is the tendency for talk radio, particularly on the AM dial, to lean to the right. Which of these is the target, or are they both?

As Democrats are in control of the House and that is where the push is coming from, a reasonable conclusion is that talk radio is the target.

But I think it’s important to look at the other broadcast media and compare before piling on the “fairness” wagon. Possibly the only broadcast television news which could be labeled conservative is on Fox. All of the others could arguably be tagged as left-leaning. Fox as a network is competitive in the marketplace and has a decent share of viewers, though not because of any government imposed doctrine and not in large part because of its news programs. Nevertheless, Fox (not Fox News) prospers in an open market which is for the most part left-leaning.

On the other hand, talk radio is very conservative. The list of conservative talk radio hosts is endless, and even those who could easily be labeled moderate or even non-political may be covered by the blanket of so-called “conservative radio”. But this is not due to lack of competition. Air America, an unabashedly liberal / leftist broadcaster, had millions of dollars thrown in its direction…and it failed. It could not garner an audience; it could not survive in the marketplace, so it went bankrupt. Would it be fair to subsidize Air America so that it could compete in the marketplace of ideas? Or would that be a government imposition of a very specific viewpoint in the marketplace, akin to, perhaps, government subsidies to make (insert conservative talk radio host here) available on broadcast television to level the playing field there?

The point here is that by re-implementing the “Fairness Doctrine” the government would necessarily be limiting the liberty of all to choose the message given and received by turning up the volume of some. And it cannot be discounted that this doctrine will also turn down the volume of others; it would limit their right to speak and to be heard. This is true for both left-leaning broadcast television and right-leaning talk radio. It would limit the fair exchange of ideas, not facilitate it. It would give those in power, whoever they may be, a free hand in dictating what people hear, and thus what people think. That, as Charles Fried discusses in Modern Liberty, is the foundation of liberty – the freedom to think without undue impositions on what to think. And here equality in the form of the “Fairness Doctrine” is the enemy of freedom of thought and of liberty.

1 comment:

cullin said...

Sometimes it amazes me how often branches of the government ignore one another. The supreme court made a point in Brown v. Board of education, (I think thats the one) that equal means equal opportunity not equal result, and though this issue is not concerning civil rights, it is around the same level. It is not as if liberal media has to jump through more hoops to meet regulations etc. than conservative media, they have to meet the same requirements. It is as if the government would finance me because a competing company is doing better. Now if Liberal politicians want to personally finance liberal media, there is nothing wrong with that, just don't pull it from Uncle Sam's pocket.