The Unfairness of Reviving the Fairness Doctrine

There's been a lot of talk lately about reviving the "Fairness Doctrine,"  the equal-time broadcasting regulation repealed by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987. During its time, the Fairness Doctrine mandated that broadcasters on the public airwaves give equal and balanced airtime to multiple perspectives covering topics of fundamental interest to the public welfare. Conservatives have long complained that such regulations stifle freedom of speech, but activists and officials of today's Democratic left -- recently emboldened by the capture of the White House and strong majorities in both chambers of Congress -- are agitating for a return to government regulation of the media. As Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow recently exclaimed, "I absolutely think it's time to be bringing accountability to the airwaves."

In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Rush Limbaugh, the super-popular conservative radio personality, argued against the Fairness Doctrine. As Limbaugh points out, the demand for a renewed leftist choke hold on the marketplace of ideas is more encompassing than in earlier decades of the regulation. At issue is not simply the imposition of "equal time" for diverse viewpoints, but the more fundamental question of state control of "so-called local content, diversity-of-ownership, and public-interest rules" churned out by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandarins. While the Senate's so-called "DeMint amendment" passed the Senate last week (blocking the FCC's reinstatement of the doctrine), leftists see this a short-term sop to conservatives that will work to obscure more far-reaching Democratic ambitions toward a progressive "public interest regulatory paradigm."

Conservatives complain, with good reason, that the leftist establishment of broadcast "fairness" would have a "chilling" effect on competition and the free exchange of ideas and information. And no doubt it would. But the situation is even more disturbing when viewed from the perspective of leftist "fairness" advocates themselves.

In a recent blog post discussing the business model of Politico, the upstart D.C.-based media organization geared to Beltway insiders (which is rumored to include generous salaries in the $150,000-$250,000 range for top reporters), Matthew Yglesias gave voice to the ideological underpinnings of the left's project to regulate speech. Suggesting that Politico's news coverage is "utterly trivial" and "poisons public debate," Yglesias remarks: "These are hard times for the journalism business, but that doesn't mean that people in the media should stop holding each other to any kind of reasonable standards of quality and responsibility. I don't think the existence of a market economy should be seen as giving everyone ethical carte blanche to totally ignore the welfare of their fellow citizens when going about their business."

If we recall that a key essence of free markets is competition and the distribution of rewards for outstanding innovation and performance, Yglesias' hostility to Politico's "hyper-caffeinated" media-capitalism is extremely telling. Commenting on the same story, and focusing on the organization's public-relations marketing, progressive journalist Lindsay Beyerstein argued that Politico's model of conservative content-promotion was "democracy's failure": "What's disturbing is that the content itself is pitched to to (sic) the lowest common denominator within the chattering classes. Politico is like crack. Sure, if crack had better PR, there might be more crackheads -- but the underlying problem would still be the crack itself, not the sleazy promotional push."