If you’re old enough to remember the days when freak shows were in carnivals and not daytime television, you may know about the barker and the shill. These were carnival employees who both worked to entice customers into entering the mysterious realm of the sideshow, only, their methods were very different. The barker – the correct terminology is the “talker” – was a P.T. Barnum-like character, a bold salesman who sang the praises of the exhibits. Although he was given to the hyperbole of marketing, he made no bones about his agenda: He wanted your business.
The shill was a very different animal. His job was to stand amidst the crowd and pose as one of their number; he would then feign awe as he claimed to have seen the show and that it was truly a jaw-dropping experience. He was trading on his illusion of impartiality, knowing it lent him a capacity to convince that eluded the talker with his obvious agenda.
This occurs to me when I ponder the attempt to resurrect the “Fairness Doctrine” by politicians such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich and avowedly socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. For those of you not acquainted with this proposal, it harks back to a federal regulation in place from 1949 to 1987. Ostensibly it was designed to ensure “fairness” in broadcasting, mandating that if radio and TV stations air controversial viewpoints, they must provide equal time for the “other side.”
Now, as many have pointed out, this effort is motivated by a desire to stifle conservative commentary. After all, it isn’t lost on the radical left that the dumping of this doctrine in 1987 directly coincided with the rise of conservative talk radio. Freed from the threat of hefty government fines, stations were finally able to formulate programs based on market forces and not government regulation. Thus did Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and many others give voice to the usually silent majority.
Of course, many may wonder why I’d take issue with fairness. Shouldn’t we give the “other side” its day in court, one may ask?
The problem is that this regulation would be applied to talk radio but not arenas dominated by liberal thought – a perfect example being the ever-present mainstream media (which presents the “other side”). This is because talk show hosts trade in red meat commentary, whereas the mainstream press is more subtle in its opinion-making.
Fine then, say the critics, that’s as it should be. We don’t have to worry about “responsible journalists”; it’s those acid-tongued firebrands who pollute discourse with their pyro-polemics who bedevil us. And on the surface this sounds convincing, which is why I'm telling you about the talker and the shill.
The dirty little secret behind the Fairness Doctrine is that it punishes the honest. Think about it: Radio hosts are the talkers; they wear their banners openly as they proclaim who and what they are. Sure, they may be brash and hyperbolic, loud and oft-sardonic, but there is no pretense, little guile, and you know what they want you to believe. You know what they’re sellin’ and if you’re buyin’.
The mainstream media, however, is a shill. Oh, not shills working with talk radio, of course, as their talkers are entities such as MoveOn.org and Media Matters, but they are shills nonetheless. They masquerade as impartial purveyors of information, almost-automatons who, like Joe Friday, are just interested in the facts, ma’am. They flutter their eyes and read their Teleprompters, and we are to believe God graced them with a singular ability to render facts uncolored by personal perspective.
In reality, though, the Shill Media is about as impartial as an Imam in a comparative religion class. Let’s not forget that they used to call Republican reductions in the rate of spending growth “budget cuts,” have a habit of referring to pro-lifers as “anti-abortion groups” (they don’t call pro-choice groups “pro-abortion”) and to terrorists as insurgents or even “freedom fighters,” and only seem to perceive hate crime when the victim’s group has victim status. And while I can’t comprehensively document news bias here, suffice it to say the Shill Media is at least as ideologically monolithic as talk radio. Why, in 1992, 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Bill Clinton; in 1996 the figure was 92 percent. Even outside the Beltway liberal bias reigns, with scribes so situated favoring Democrats by about a three to one margin.
But the point here isn’t the nature or pervasiveness of the bias, but its insidiousness. The Shill Media are the truly dangerous ones because of their illusion of impartiality. There’s a reason why we trust what Consumer Reports says about Buick a lot more than what Buick says about Buick. And if we discovered that Buick’s marketing arm was masquerading as a consumer advocacy magazine, we’d want the subterfuge revealed. Remember, brainwashing is only effective if you’re not aware it’s occurring.
Hiding your bias
This is why the Fairness Doctrine is an insult to the intelligence of anyone possessing more than a modicum of that quality. Its message is, hey, hide your bias well, be a slick propagandist and you’ll proceed unmolested. But dare not tell the truth or be so bold as to bare your soul. Like an ostentatious literary critic, we appreciate subtlety and abhor straightness. Lying lips trump truthful tongues, don’t you know?
Thus, far better than a fairness doctrine would be a “Truth in Media Doctrine.” And here’s its mandate: When a correspondent is shown on the nightly news, there must be a caption to the effect of, “Dan Rather, Clinton-Gore-Kerry voter” or “Katie Couric, lifelong Democrat.”
Hey, why not? Let’s strip the masks off the shills. Otherwise, it’s a bit like letting Mullah Omar sing the praises of Islam while dressed as a Catholic priest. And shouldn’t these “responsible journalists” be at least as honest as those troglodytes in talk radio?
I wax satirical but, in reality, ensuring disclosure is far easier than securing fairness. In fact, how could the latter possibly be achieved? After all, media bias lies not just in how news is reported but also in what they choose to report on in the first place. Why do they decide to focus on sex discrimination in the construction industry instead of transgressions by abortionists? Why Abu Ghraib instead of the oil-for-food scandal? Why that which helps or harms one cause but not another?
The fact is that the media chooses the social battlefields and decides which way salvos will be fired. Human judgement is in play when they decide whether to broadcast or bury, how often a story will run, what terminology will describe it and what imagery will attend it.
Then, the idea that fairness is ensured by disseminating the “other side” presupposes that there are only two sides, but an issue isn’t a coin. There are often a multitude of sides, therefore, a dictate to present both sides simply means government input in the process of discrimination. And that’s what it is, since only two sides will be chosen from among many. What about the libertarians, Greens, Vermont Progressives, Constitutionalists, Christian Freedom Party members and communists? Oh, silly me, I forgot. The communists are giving us the Fairness Doctrine.
Now, some will say the other side is simply a refutation of the talkers’ controversial positions. But here I note that much of talk radio commentary is in fact a refutation of Shill Media positions. Thus, insofar as this goes, talk radio doesn't need to be balanced by the other side.
It is the other side.
So, affirmative-action and quotas in commentary? Please. Should I think Big Brother capable of factoring millions of different elements into a media formula and developing a paradigm for fairness? Sure, let’s have the Post Office run the press.
Of course, the dirty little secret is that the Fairness Doctrine is about everything but. Its proponents are political shills, bristling at the fact that their talk radio test balloon, Airhead America, only succeeded in talking its way into Chapter 11. Their spirit is the same one that gives us speech codes in colleges and corporations, the effort to stifle grassroots lobbying and hate speech laws. Perhaps it’s that those who can teach, do, and those who can’t, legislate.
You know, there’s an image conjured up by this scheme, that of a sullen, pouty little child complaining, “That’s not fair!” and stamping his foot with arms akimbo. But as John F. Kennedy observed, “Life’s not fair.”
No, it certainly isn’t. Some people are born with intelligence, others aren’t. Some people possess logic, reason, sound ideas, philosophical depth and powers of persuasion, others don’t. I guess the less gifted’s recourse to this ploy is a tacit admission that they bring no ammunition to the battlefield of debate. And now it seems they fancy big government as a substitute for big ideas.