Ed Quillen: No need to bring back the Fairness Doctrine
Aspen Times Weekly
Lately there has been some talk about reviving the “Fairness Doctrine” for broadcast media. It’s a bad idea.
The Fairness Doctrine ran from 1949 until 1987. The Federal Communications Commission required broadcasters to address matters of public interest, some of them necessarily controversial, and to broadcast contrasting views.
At the time, there were understandable reasons. Since commercial radio began in the 1920s, our legal system has held that the electronic spectrum is a public resource to be allocated by the federal government, presumably acting in the public interest.
This resource is limited ” that is, there’s room for only a certain number of signals in the broadcast band, as compared to no such limit on print ” and so broadcast licensees should serve the public interest by presenting responses to various opinions.
Many stations, one might note, evaded the Fairness Doctrine by avoiding controversial topics that might inspire someone to request response time ” hardly a way to encourage public discussion.
But much has changed since then. When I moved to Salida in 1978, the only radio broadcast that came in reliably was the local station, KVRH, which covered local news closely and offered commentary. Even if there had been no Fairness Doctrine then, station owner Bill Murphy was the kind of man who wanted to make sure a variety of views were heard.
Nowadays, KVRH remains in business, but it’s not the monopoly of yore. I never thought I’d see the day when you could run out of FM preset buttons in Salida, but just locally we have two oldies stations, at least one country music station and a low-power community radio station. We also get two NPR stations via repeater, a classical music station and perhaps a Christian music station, although I’ve never kept that one on long enough to be sure. And there may be more.
In other words, even in this remote area I can listen to Rush Limbaugh or Amy Goodman as the mood strikes, so why should any station be obliged to offer both?
That’s just in radio. I can watch Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, or Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes on Fox News, Lou Dobbs on CNN or some pro-immigrant documentary on FSTV. And there’s the Internet, where the channels and opinions are nearly innumerable.
So if there ever was a justification for the Fairness Doctrine, on the basis of limited channels, it certainly doesn’t apply now.
Ah, but there’s talk radio, which really took off after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, and which is generally rather right-wing. Reviving the Fairness Doctrine could stifle those operations, and doubtless that would please some left-wingers who don’t trust “the marketplace of ideas.”
But the conservative talk-show hosts, at least in Colorado, aren’t out to squelch other voices. I’ve been on programs hosted by Mike Rosen, Gunny Bob Newman and Amy Oliver; they gave me a chance to state and explain my views before they argued with me. Even without a Fairness Doctrine, hosts do bring in opposing viewpoints.
Further, where’s the evidence that right-wing talk radio is a potent political force, rather than mostly entertainment? Rush Limbaugh played “Barack the Magic Negro” for his dittoheads, and yet Barack Obama convincingly won the presidential election. Gunny Bob tried to scare us about Rep. Mark Udall holding “the enemy’s opinion” on a military funding vote, but we still elected him to the U.S. Senate. Amy Oliver and Mike Rosen promoted Amendment 47, but Colorado voters turned down that “right to work” measure by a 56-44 margin.
So there’s no reason to revive the Fairness Doctrine. Everybody seems to be doing just fine without it.
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