Friday, March 13, 2009

Don't Fear Fairness Doctrine

March 13, 2009, 8:15 a.m.

Today's blog entry is a reprint of an op ed column of mine in this morning's Gazette.

Don't Fear Fairness Doctrine
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette
March 13, 2009, p. A4
(brought to you by*)

For reasons difficult to fathom, some Republicans fear a born-again Fairness Doctrine.

For example, Richard Jacobson, willing to assert his opposition to “fairness,” writes in the March 1 Gazette that Fairness Doctrine advocates are “liberals” who “seek to stifle free speech.”

For the last 30 years, Washington’s Republicans — and Democrats — have been working the horses hard as they drove their buggy toward the mirage of the promised land of their dreams: “marketplace deregulation.” Now they’ve taken that buggy over the inevitable cliff, and the resulting global economic collapse is only one of the costly consequences.

Loss of common-sense media regulation is another.

Iowa’s Herbert Hoover, that great lefty radical, was the secretary of commerce who was asked by the radio industry to please regulate it. Out of Hoover’s “radio conferences” of the 1920s came the broadcasters’ recommendations, enacted as the Radio Act of 1927.

Broadcasters recognized they were being licensed to profit from public property, the airwaves, and that the privilege carried with it a public responsibility. From the beginning, an evolving Fairness Doctrine has been considered a central feature of that responsibility. For 30 years, its application was seldom if ever questioned by the public, broadcasters, FCC, courts or Congress.

When challenged in the Supreme Court in 1969, the court shocked broadcasters by unanimously upholding the doctrine’s constitutionality. (Lower courts subsequently ruled the Federal Communications Commission had the authority to repeal it. The FCC’s deregulation revolution swept away the Fairness Doctrine.)

Misunderstandings about the Fairness Doctrine abound.

There are many reasons it couldn’t have been used to censor, let alone cancel, Rush Limbaugh.

For starters, it didn’t apply to talk show hosts — or any other programmers. They’re not licensed by the FCC. It was only a requirement for overthe-air radio and TV stations’ overall programming.

It didn’t apply to cableonly channels, and certainly not newspapers.

It did not require “fairness.”

It did not require equal time — disparities of 10-to1 might be acceptable.

It did not give any individual a right to air time.

The FCC didn’t monitor programming for violations. It depended on citizen complaints. Few, if any, stations have ever lost a license or suffered serious sanction for a mere fairness violation.

All it forbid, in effect, was the private use of this licensed, community resource as an unrelieved mouthpiece of one-sided propaganda.

In fact, it would be virtually impossible for responsible journalists to violate the Fairness Doctrine. It simply required what they would do anyway: report on at least some “controversial issues of public importance” and, when doing so, present a sampling of views.

That would be required by editors of papers, and news directors of stations — and their owners. Why? It boosts audience numbers and advertising revenues.

The Fairness Doctrine: It’s not just a good idea, it ought to be the law — again.
Nicholas Johnson is a former FCC Commissioner who now teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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