Just three days after the election, a Brookings Institution leader issued a memo to President-elect Barack Obama asking him to restore the Fairness Doctrine. The Vice-president of Governance Studies at Brookings, Darrell West argues that the Fairness Doctrine would help restore journalistic ethics and fulfill the media’s mission to educate the populace.
In the first of twelve memos to President Obama which will be issued over the next eight months, West argues that the incoming chief executive needs to “Restore the Media Fairness Doctrine and Requirements for Television Public Affairs Broadcasting.” West writes,
“At present, television and radio—on which Americans depend heavily for news and information—generally do not produce or promote thoughtful or deliberative discussions. The idea behind media regulation in the 1980s was that satellite technologies and cable television would allow for the presentation of diverse viewpoints…That approach has proved largely ineffective” (emphasis added).
“With profits falling, traditional media sources too often produce little substantive information and fail to give citizens adequate information about their government,” he argues. “America needs a marketplace of ideas equal to the policy challenges.”
It is ironic that West would promote a doctrine shown to water down free speech in the name of “a marketplace of ideas.” As Accuracy in Media has documented, the Fairness Doctrine had a significant “chilling” effect on news outlets, promoting self-censorship by broadcasters wary of government regulation.
It is not for nothing that the doctrine has been labeled by some as a “Hush Rush” law.
However, the new president-elect is unlikely to favor a return of the Fairness Doctrine, per se. In June 2008, Obama press secretary Michael Ortiz told Broadcasting & Cable that “Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters.”
This issue serves as a “distraction” for the Obama campaign from more important policy reforms like media ownership and diversity, Ortiz argued. “[Obama] considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible,” B&C’s John Eggerton quotes Ortiz. “That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.”
As AIM has documented, witnesses at last November’s hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on “Localism, Diversity, and Media Ownership” proposed measures which would stifle free speech and talk radio without instituting equal time requirements. Frank Blethen, CEO of the Seattle Times, told the Senators last November that they should
• “keep all current FCC ownership restrictions and public service mandates;”
• “craft new FCC mandates to ensure internet freedom;”
• “institute a ban on cross-ownership of national print and national broadcast outlets as a companion to the local cross-ownership ban;” and
• “push for limits on newspaper ownership.”
AIM editor Cliff Kincaid warned that the hearing could spark a renewed push for the Fairness Doctrine, especially since two committee members were John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, strong advocates for the return of the doctrine.
A study released by the Center for American Progress (CAP) last summer argued that talk radio suffers from a “structural imbalance” that favors conservatives. Their remedies: promote localism and minority ownership, and fine broadcasters who aren’t in compliance.
John Podesta, the President and CEO of CAP, is Barack Obama’s transition co-chair, one of three top positions within his transition team.
In a 2004 symposium, Podesta outlined his views on what he sees as having gone wrong with the media:
“We’re here because we understand that the media as it’s owned and organized today bears only the faintest resemblance to that Jeffersonian vision. We’re here because instead of being an uplifting force of enlightenment, media conglomerates today are sometimes the exact opposite.”
Media outlets, that is, like Clear Channel and “Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.” “What would they [the Founders] think of the fact that even though Americans have more TV channels than ever to choose from, three-quarters of us are seeing content that’s generated by only 5 different media companies?,” queried Podesta. “And what would any of them say of a broadcaster whose influence is so great, but journalist ethics are so feeble, that 48% of its viewers believe a war was justified because of an event that never occurred?” (emphasis added).
Statements like these make it clear that Podesta, along with CAP, intend to muzzle conservative expression—especially within the talk-radio market, which they have argued favors conservatives because of this “structural imbalance.”
Columnist Michelle Malkin, a Reed Irvine Award recipient, called CAP’s proposals a “Hugo Chavez approach to the radio airwaves.”
Barack Obama has shown that he considers key portions of Blethen’s and CAP’s proposals a priority when regulating the media. His presidential agenda to “ensure the full and free exchange of ideas through an open internet and diverse media outlets” hinges on three points:
• protecting the “openness of the internet” through net neutrality;
• encouraging “diversity in media ownership;” and
• protecting children “while preserving the first amendment.”
“Barack Obama believes that the nation’s rules ensuring diversity of media ownership are critical to the public interest,” states the web page. “Unfortunately, over the past several years the Federal Communications Commission has promoted the concept of consolidation over diversity.”
“As president, Obama will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.”
The CAP study found that “markets that air both conservative and progressive programming are statistically more likely to have female- and minority-owned stations in the market, and are significantly less concentrated than the markets that air only one type of programming” (emphasis original).
In his agenda, Obama also commits himself to creating a government with “a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.” But citizens who visit the change.gov website are unlikely to see what America’s future president intends for the media—because the content has been taken down.
The current agenda page is only two paragraphs long and this information must be retrieved through independent archives. This merely adds to a long history of statements in which our future president either denies inconvenient truths, or scrubs his website to remove misleading statements.
Lynn Woolley, writing for AIM, recently commented that “The Fairness Doctrine is going to make a comeback, and the only thing that might stop it is the American people.”
Is there something about his policies that Obama doesn’t want us to know?
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.