Monday, October 20, 2008

The Fairness Doctrine


I've been interested in the Fairness Doctrine for a long time -- because it's simply such a bad idea.

It would mandate that broadcasters offer time to opposing viewpoints to any controversial issues it may air, or face the FCC.

It was taken out of commission during the Reagan administration, but, over the past several years, it has gotten support from many lawmakers, mostly on the left, especially from Nancy Pelosi.

It's a good idea, in theory. In practice, it would be virtually impossible to regulate the regulators.

You see, while it requires equal representation of opposing views, I can't seem to find out for certain whether there was discretion on the part of the FCC to determine if enough time had been devoted to the opposing views.

Note: There is an "equal time" mandate, but that applies to political campaigns -- if a broadcaster gives time to one candidate, it has to offer the same time to other candidates.

I'm trying to find the actual text of the mandate, but it seems all I can find are summaries and commentaries, so all I've been able to find so far are vague references to the representation -- I've found summaries that state "equal time" and others that say the alternate views can be presented in different formats than the original (e.g., a station could run 2 hours of one view in a news show, and then 5 minutes of opposition in an editorial), but without specifically mentioning actual time requirements.

And that's where it starts to become a bad idea.

Without really concrete, detailed requirements, there are elements of "fairness" that are quite subjective. So, depending on who's evaluating the fairness of something could easily manipulate the system.

Here's where it gets politically ugly.

Consider this:

The calls for implementing the Fairness Doctrine on talk radio is coming from the left.

Right-wing talk radio is very successful, while left-wing talk radio is not. Radio stations that carry conservative talk radio make a lot of money from it.

If a station that plays conservative talk radio is forced, by law, to play something that has proven unsuccessful, they would be being forced to do something that goes completely opposite the concept of market demand.

They might stand for it and do it to a point, if there is no time requirement -- so they could play 4 hours of conservative talk and then 20 minutes of money-losing liberal radio and just accept it. But, if there is no specific time requirement, then whoever is deciding whether it's fair or not could just say, "No, that's not enough," and fine the station until it plays what that evaluator considers fair.

The fear is that a station, if faced with having to play 4 hours of conservative and then 4 hours of liberal and knowing that that means they make money for 4 hours and then lose money for 4 hours, the station would just opt to play something completely different and make money for all 8 hours, thereby shutting down successful, popular talk conservative talk radio.

Even if there are detailed specific rules so there could be no room for interpretation, those rules have to put the power on the side of the station, because they are the business end -- if they are going to be forced to play money-losing programming, they should be able to decide when and how much to play. Even then, some stations may put profit before principal and just drop political talk radio anyway, just to spare themselves the headache.

And it's not a far-fetched fear, when you consider that the left constantly refers to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill O'Reilly, Larry Elder and Mike Savage as racist haters that should not be allowed to taint the airwaves. If they saw a legal opportunity to silence those people without having to actually compete against them, can you honestly say they wouldn't do it?

You know they would. And I can be objective enough to say that I know the GOP would do the same damn thing if the roles were reversed. That's why it's a bad idea, because it can -- and would be -- corrupted by whoever is in power.

Here are some links with more information about this, and the equal time rule:

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