Not long ago, Reporters Without Borders downgraded the US in their Press Freedom Index by 36 spots, putting us down in the range of Uruguay and Tonga, all as the result of the imprisonment of Judith Miller for not cooperating with the Valerie Plame leak investigation. We moved from 17th place, fairly near the top of the list with the other civilized countries, down to the middle where press freedom is usually at the whim of some dictator or princeling. I wonder what they will do to our rating if Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) manages to reinstate the notorious Fairness Doctrine with his new Media Ownership Reform Act, a bill which has 17 cosponsors and strong support among the Democrats who now control Congress.
The Fairness Doctrine originated as a vague FCC policy in the 1950s intended to give competing political candidates equal access to broadcast media exposure, so that no outlet could ban the advertisements or coverage of a particular candidate. Over the years the policy went through many changes, ultimately becoming much more restrictive by the 1980s to the point where it essentially mandated second-by-second equal time for opposing editorial positions as well as opposing candidates.
Under the Reagan administration the FCC issued the Fairness Report in 1985 which suggested doing away with the doctrine because it was a violation of the First Amendment and generally contrary to the public interest. As a result the FCC began a hands-off policy supporting free debate on the airwaves, similar to the general lack of regulation of the print media. A final effort was made to restore the doctrine by passing it as the Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987, but Presidents Reagan and Bush both vetoed the bill.
Back in power in Congress for the first time since those vetoes, restoring the Fairness Doctrine is high on the list of many Democrats, and Hinchey is leading the way with his bill which specifically references the very broad interpretation of the doctrine found in the vetoed 1987 legislation. As defined in Hinchey's bill, the Fairness Doctrine could easily be interpreted to require radio and television stations carrying popular but politically partisan programming to provide equal airtime to programming with an opposing viewpoint regardless of its audience appeal.
Some supporters openly refer to this as the 'Hush Rush' or 'Air America Bailout' bill, because it would make it financially prohibitive for talk radio stations to carry popular conservative talk shows, because they would have to be balanced by politically left-leaning programming which would not attract enough of an audience to bring in any advertising money. For every enormously profitable hour of Rush Limbaugh and his millions of listeners which a station carries it would have to broadcast an hour of Al Franken or the equivalent, with no listeners and no appeal to advertisers.
Widespread implementation of this doctrine raises all sorts of issues, and not just the obvious ones with the restriction of free speech and blatant meddling in the business practices of broadcasters. Perhaps the biggest issue is that of subjectivity. Who defines what the political alignment of a program is and what should be broadcast to balance it? Some woiuld classify a radio talker like Neal Boortz as conservative, but his positions don't conform to those of any political party, so how would you balance him fairly? You'd almost have to go out and manufacture a program for that purpose which promoted equivalently mixed positions in a mirror image. This might be difficult for many programs which focus mostly on common sense and relatively moderate positions. The only way to balance common sense and moderation is with craziness and extremism.
Hinchey's MORA also brings back some of the rather unappealing regulatory restrictions on broadcast network ownership. I'm as tired as anyone else of Clear Channel owning all the pop music stations in my market, but it still seems like extreme and unnecessary restraint of trade to force them to get rid of most of their stations to create the illusion of diversity. The stations are still going to play the same top 40 crap even if they are owned by four different companies instead of one. All these provisions do punish media businesses for their success.
Punishing success is a large part of the Hinchey bill. There is clearly a large market for conservative talk radio. The market for left-leaning counterprogramming appears to be much more limited. Based on the disastrous commercial failure of Air America, which has now been reduced to paying for airtime on stations in major markets, the left's version of talk radio can't beg, borrow, or even buy an audience. With this bill they can be protected from the need to really succeed in the marketplace, and they will be guaranteed airtime at the expense of the broadcasters regardless of their ability to attract advertisers or an audience. Or we could be looking at the more practical alternative of just shutting down popular talk radio shows, because it's easier than trying to find balancing programming that people want to listen to.
Then there's the question of where the idea of 'fairness' will stop. It can certainly be applied to broadcast television, and there will likely be an attempt to extend its provisions to cable news as well, even though the FCC's role there is debatable. Under the guise of equal access and political campaign reform it can be applied almost anywhere, not just the public airwaves. Will it eventually be extended to include print media? Maybe the long history of an independent press will protect it.
But what about the newly emerging Internet press? It shares characteristics in common with broadcast media and many believe it also leans heavily to the right. There has already been talk of shutting down partisan blogs 60 days before elections under the guise of 'campaign finance reform'. The logical extension of the Hinchey bill would be to virtually eliminate political discussion on the Internet, because it would be almost impossible to establish standards of fairness. The best that could be hoped for is some sort of licensing system with ideological testing of bloggers and online discussion sites, rationing access to the Internet based on what beliefs you hold.
What's so terrible about letting people speak freely on the airwaves and leaving it to the audience to decide what they want to listen to and what they want to ignore? Can the vision of fairness promoted by a government which is run by partisan politicians and bureaucrats ever really be trusted to look out for the interests of all of the people and respect their right to free speech? Or will this new incarnation of the Fairness Doctrine become a way of rationing freedom and making sure that only approved ideas and licensed thoughts get a chance to be heard?