Thought to be a relic of the 1980’s, the ironically named Fairness Doctrine that enabled the federal government to muzzle conservative voices on the airwaves may soon come back with a vengeance. “As someone who has been leading the Senate effort to permanently prohibit the return of the Fairness Doctrine, let me be clear that the danger of the Fairness Doctrine coming back is very clear and present,” said Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) at an October Heritage briefing. “What will take for it is for a Democratic president to put in place a Democratic majority at the FCC that can then decide—with the support of a Democratic Congress—to bring back the Fairness Doctrine,” he added.
Senator Mike Pence (R-IN) recently introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act, which would permanently prevent the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or Congress from reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine.
One study released in June 2007 by the liberal non-profit Center for American Progress (CAP) and Free Press echoes the Senators’ suspicions. In “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” CAP researchers John Halpin et al. note that “Many legal experts argue that the FCC has the authority to enforce it again—thus it technically would not be considered repealed.” In other words, without a law prohibiting the return of the Fairness Doctrine, it could be quickly and easily reestablished by unaccountable leaders within a bureaucratic agency.
Senator Coleman argues that the Fairness Doctrine threatens the First Amendment because it extends beyond licensing into the regulation of content. FCC content regulation could easily become an outlet for the party in power to enforce ideological conformity, because the definition of fair and balanced will vary between administrations. “I’ve got to tell you, the United States Senate—a hundred of us— whether we could agree on what is fair and balanced would be an interesting proposition,” asserted Coleman.
Comments by Democratic leaders raise the question whether the Fairness Doctrine has an electoral purpose. “… one of the most profound changes in the balance of the media is when the conservatives got rid of the equal time requirements and the result is that they have been able to squeeze down and squeeze out opinion of opposing views and I think it’s been a very important transition in the imbalance of our public eye,” failed presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA) announced on the Brian Lehrer Show in June 2007.
In the end, the day-to-day delineation between conservative and progressive values would be left up to the Executive branch and the President. “This issue is not which broadcaster is fair and which is not. The issue is who decides,” argued Coleman.
Halpin et al. had little trouble delineating between progressive and conservative shows, choosing to rank stations based on the syndicated hosts they aired. They identified 53 conservative and 22 progressive talk-show hosts.
Proponents of the Fairness Doctrine (or any other form of fairness-justified censorship) predicate their arguments on the assumption that talk-radio’s ideological imbalance is arbitrarily imposed upon the American people. Harpin et al. conclude that “the complete breakdown of the trustee concept of the broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements… and the relaxation of ownership rules…” has resulted in an egregious imbalance, in which the top 5 radio stations air 2,570 hours of conservative talk radio and only 254 hours of progressive shows.
Upon closer examination, the study’s quantitative proof of a structural progressive disadvantage in talk radio disappears. According the CAP study, conservative radio programming is primarily done by large radio conglomerates. However, the statistical results show that, on average, conservative station managers own approximately 2.6 stations. Progressive station managers own an average 2.4 stations. In terms of revenue, conservative radio shows have only a slight advantage, accruing 54.3% of funding. Progressive and conservative shows had similar audience shares, with progressive programming receiving 46.7% and conservative programming receiving 53.3% of listeners.
Despite these similar numbers, the study alleges that programming divides on racial and gender lines, and that “increasing ownership diversity, both in terms of the race/ethnicity and gender of owners” could lead to more varied—read, balanced—programming. The study also argues that the FCC should require radio broadcasters “to use a standardized form to provide information on how the station serves the public interest in a variety of areas” and “regularly show that they are operating on behalf of the public interest,” or pay a nominal fine. They estimate total annual fines could supply another $250 million or $500 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget, but that these fines would not “overly burden” broadcasters.
But conservatives argue that monitoring content is simply not the role of government. “It is dangerous to suggest that the government should be in the business of rationing free speech,” argues Congressman Pence.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.