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There's been a lot of talk lately about reviving the "Fairness Doctrine,"  the equal-time broadcasting regulation repealed by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987.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."

The original justification for the Fairness Doctrine was that the limited high-frequency infrastructure of the airwaves justified government control of content provided by licensed broadcasters. (That rationale became less tenable after the Reagan years of FCC deregulation and the subsequent proliferation of conservative talk radio programs.) Newspapers were not held to that same standard, as outlined in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1974 decision in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, which held that the print media were not hindered by limited bandwidth, and thus enjoyed virtually unlimited competition. There was no compelling governmental interest to regulate the content of broadsheet journalism.

Yet today's leftists make no such distinctions (in a sure sign of the Democratic-left's hunger for censorship and control). Both conservative talk radio and print outlets like Politico are condemned for their success. And if that success is deemed as violating the general interest -- or, in Matthew Yglesias' words, as ignoring the "public welfare" -- then the Democrats can claim an allegedly powerful case for renewed regulation of conservative views. Indeed, notice Lindsay Beyerstein's analogy holding conservative commentary as comparable to "crack" cocaine. In this formulation, a business model touting "performance pay" is dangerous, even criminal. This is the journalistic "drug rush" that goes too far. There ought to be a law -- hence, the demand for mass-media "drug-control" legislation.

Take Dave Neiwert's suggestion at the far left-wing Crooks and Liars, for example. Excoriating conservative talk radio heroes like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Neiwert moves beyond content regulation to advocate corporate control of the media, suggesting that, "Rather than bring back the Fairness Doctrine ... it might be better simply to reform the structure of how FCC licenses are distributed and make diversity of ownership a priority."

"Diversity of ownership?" Yeah, right. As Betsy Newmark reported, what we're seeing is the emergence of "a new version of the Fairness Doctrine." Leftists know that the success of right-wing talk radio over the last couple of decades is proof of public demand for conservative opinion. Since they can't win that argument, leftists will venue-shop down to the local level, arguing for a compelling governmental interest in regulating state and local communications networks, perhaps even the Internet (oddly enough, given the left's entrepreneurial prowess on the web).

This tack is particularly pernicious and fundamentally dishonest. The focus on localism is of a piece with the stealth paradigm of Democratic governance under the new Obama-Pelosi-Reid regime. When facing conservative pushback on traditional big-government policies, Democrats stonewall, prevaricate, lie, and obstruct. The faux-debate of the new regime's economic stimulus-porkulus boondoggle is instructive in its Orwellianism.

The brutal truth is that the left cannot compete in the marketplace of ideas. The logical outcome of that competitive impotence is to simply remove the market mechanism itself. This is the essence of state-socialist ideological advocacy. An ideological truth -- socialism -- that is so frequently resisted by the slow-witted cattle of the leftosphere, is in fact being repackaged, ironically, as "robust, informed, and mature discussion" toward state violence and control of freedom of speech and commerce.

It's thus important to keep in mind that while some conservatives have argued that the right has bigger fish to fry, that the Democratic agenda is intent to have an orgy on "endless bailouts, runaway deficit spending, nationalized health care, card check," it all runs parallel. What better way to grease the wheels of big government than by redefining the success of conservative print and radio media as a violation of "public welfare," which should then be prohibited like "crack cocaine"?

If it's indeed time for "Some Straight Talk About the Fairness Doctrine," then let's put everything on the table, including the Democratic-left's demands for local content dictates, diversity-of-ownership smokescreens, and public-interest rule-based totalitarianism.