Monday, July 7, 2008

The Fairness Doctrine, the Broadcaster Freedom Act, and the Expansion of Public Discourse

Martha Zoller has a new column that I happened to run across today that voices its support for the "Broadcaster Freedom Act". The "Broadcaster Freedom Act" will effectively bar the FCC from making any new rules or regulations that would reinstate or re-implement standards once set in the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was established in 1949 to provide for a more balanced discourse on controversial issues that were discussed on public airwaves. The belief was that there were fewer broadcast licenses than there were people who would like to have them, therefore licensees accept certain public responsibility for the use of the airwaves. Given this acceptance of public responsibility, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote some of their time to discussion of issues in the public interest and to give airtime to opposing viewpoints. Broadcasters could air opposing views in many different formats (news segments, editorial spots, etc.) but were not required to air the opposing views within the same program. The Fairness Doctrine also didn't require broadcasters programming to be split down a 50/50 line, but merely provide a balance in discussion of issues in the public interest.

The Fairness Doctrine stopped being enforced in the mid-1980's when then FCC Chair Mark Fowler expressed the belief that the view of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced with the view of broadcasters as marketplace participants. In other words, Fowler advocated the position that content being broadcast on the airwaves should be left to the "free-market". Fowler would also argue, as does Martha Zoller, that the Fairness Doctrine limited free speech by giving the government control over a station's editorial content. Zoller states:

We must protect the free market everywhere it is being assaulted, and talk radio is a free speech market that should be left alone by regulation.

We must remember when discussing this issue, that the airwaves belong to the public and that broadcasters should serve the public interest. Since the end of the Fairness Doctrine we have seen continued concentration of the media into the hands of just a few companies. Though some would argue that we have more channels now with the existence of cable, I am reminded of Senator Byron Dorgan's observation that this is like many voices coming from the same ventriloquist. We have seen opinion and viewpoints become more limited on the airwaves, not expanded since things have been turned over to the "free-market". You can see this firsthand in the coverage in the lead-up to the Iraq War and in the "post-9/11 world" where dissenting opinion was suppressed. Zoller further claims in her article:

The marketplace doesn’t want liberal talk radio. There have been some shows that have done well, but the numbers are not in their favor. This year at the Talkers New Media Seminar, there were more liberal/progressive/independent hosts represented, but the bread and butter still goes to conservative talk because conservatives are so under-represented in the rest of the media market.

When we discuss topics such as the public airwaves, which are owned by the public and should serve in the interest of the public, it is not productive to speak about such topics as "products" subjected to the "marketplace". Public forums for debate, discussion, and the expansion of ideas are fundamental to democracy and speaking about different viewpoints as if we are choosing between brands of soda pop, is grossly missing the point. Simply stating that the public "doesn't want" the other view is no excuse for its suppression and in a society that benefits from debating all viewpoints, it is completely necessary to further open up the level of discourse.

Media consolidation has hurt democracy and it is not productive to think about the issue in terms of a "liberal" or a "conservative" media, but rather recognize that our media outlets are largely stenographers to power. Our media outlets produce sanitized infotainment that passes as news and keeps advertisers coming back for more. Perhaps it is more beneficial to look at this issue of "Fairness" through the eyes of a 1969 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Fairness Doctrine:

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a...frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others.... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

— U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 1969


The Author of this Blog is home at last, and he has something to say... said...

Very Interesting blog. I enjoyed it tremendously. I read it for an hour.

The FISA question and Barack's swing on the bill is troubling to me.

I will subscribe to it I write my main blog from Columbus, Ohio, up the road from you, @ the OSU Campus area.

I deal with Exposing the Politics of Deceit, Prejudice, Intolerance and of course, Common Sense.

It's good seeing a blog like yours coming from such a conservative community as Cincinnati

keep up the good work guy. I will subscribe to your blog, even if I don't agree on every point.

Your points are presented well.
listed on blogger ID

Chris Johnson said...

Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you enjoy the blog. I will add yours to my "Blogs of note" on my page.

Lothlorien87 said...

This was a very well-written and informative post; I hadn't heard of this issue before, but you presented it in a fashion that was both informative and engaging. I especially liked this section:

" is not productive to speak about such topics as "products" subjected to the "marketplace". Public forums for debate, discussion, and the expansion of ideas are fundamental to democracy and speaking about different viewpoints as if we are choosing between brands of soda pop, is grossly missing the point."

You make a great point while using fantastic imagery.

Keep it up, and I'll continue reading!

Cousin Jessica