Broadcasting, reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine
Should the Fairness Doctrine be reintroduced in the USA?
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Since the Fairness Doctrine was lifted in 1987 right-wing talk shows have come to dominate the airwa...
Since the Fairness Doctrine was lifted in 1987 right-wing talk shows have come to dominate the airwaves. Conservative hosts and commentators present a populist and very one-sided viewpoint, routinely abusing callers and guests who disagree with their opinions. The tone of these programmes is intolerant and unpleasant, playing to the prejudices of their listeners and promoting a very narrow set of views. This cheapens the quality of public debate, as those who disagree with the values and policies of the broadcasters are labelled as not just wrong, but also stupid, immoral and unpatriotic. Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would ensure a more balanced diet of opinion, and help to bring back a greater degree of civility to the airwaves.
Some people may find right wing radio distasteful, or object to the slant Fox News gives to its coverage of politics and world affairs, but such stations are only part of the whole broadcasting spectrum. In fact talk radio has less than 5% of the total radio market. Most conservatives believe that the mainstream media, such as National Public Radio and the traditional big three television channels (ABC, NBC and CBS), is strongly left-leaning, and that talk-radio acts to balance this bias. As for complaints about the tone of talk-radio shows, what some people label “intolerant and unpleasant”, others may see as vigorous and fearless. In any case, many liberals are horribly rude about President Bush, or show disrespect for great American institutions such as the stars and stripes flag and the U.S. military.
Unbalanced broadcasting also affects policymaking, in ways which are bad for our country. Talk radi...
Unbalanced broadcasting also affects policymaking, in ways which are bad for our country. Talk radio hosts can fire up their audiences over particular issues, successfully urging them to place so much pressure on their elected representatives that they are able to impose their agenda at state and federal level. This attacks the representative principle – that elected officials must use their best judgement to make decisions for the good of all, rather than bending to the uninformed and perhaps temporary will of mass opinion. Such campaigns are particularly dangerous on issues such as trade and immigration where the populist argument seems simple, easily summed up in appealing nativist slogans. Often the alternative case is more complex, requiring a greater level of economic and political education and a willingness to study dispassionately a range of evidence. Following the collapse in 2007 of attempts at immigration reform, even Tent Lott, a leading Republican Senator, has lamented that talk radio is running the country, having power without responsibility.
Broadcasting is a business, not different in character from any other. We need to take a market view and let the public as consumers decide what they want to listen to rather than imposing it upon them. There is nothing to stop anyone launching a liberal talk radio station, and indeed there have been many attempts to do so. But these have proved unpopular failures, because the public does not want to buy what they are peddling. Talk radio is successful because its broadcasters share the values of the American people, and are able to express the way they feel about the key issues of the day. One of those issues is the way in which strong public opinion (e.g. over immigration, NAFTA or school prayer) has been consistently ignored by politicians over many decades – they say one thing at election time and then do another in Washington. If talk radio publicises representatives’ voting records and enables their voters to hold them to account, then so much the better.
The Fairness Doctrine should be brought back because a wide range of views is needed to safeguard de...
The Fairness Doctrine should be brought back because a wide range of views is needed to safeguard democracy. We can trust voters to decide for themselves only if they have been trusted with the means to do so. An uninformed electorate lacks the tools to exercise free political judgements, and is open to being swayed by a diet of propaganda. This means broadcasters must challenge their listeners and viewers with a range of opinions on a wide range of issues, rather than reinforcing what they already think. Only through exposure to a balanced diet of opinion and debate can our citizens understand the choices facing our country.
When the Fairness Doctrine was in place it actually stifled debate and prevented controversial issues being freely debated over the airwaves. This was because its requirement for balance left broadcasters open to charges of bias and fearful of litigation or of losing their licenses. In order to prevent this, stations simply chose to avoid all discussion of controversial issues. By contrast, the lifting of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 had a liberating effect on broadcasters, allowing talk radio to flourish and encouraging the debate of a great variety of important issues, from a wide range of perspectives. There can be no doubt that bringing the doctrine back would again have a “chilling effect” on the public debate which democracy needs to flourish.
Reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine would promote free speech rather than act to limit it. The Supr...
Reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine would promote free speech rather than act to limit it. The Supreme Court found in 1969 that the Fairness Doctrine did not abridge free speech because requiring access for a range of viewpoints does nothing to restrict the right to present a particular opinion. The rights of citizens as listeners and viewers to hear a broad range of ideas easily outweighs any right the broadcasters might claim to put out any one viewpoint they choose, to the exclusion of all others.
A Fairness doctrine would attack the constitutional right to freedom of speech. It is no business of the state to force feed citizens with opinions or apply some sort of media interference in the name of “balance”. Giving the government some kind of editorial control over what is broadcast amounts to censorship and should be resisted fiercely. Far from being fair, such a restriction stops broadcasters expressing their opinions freely, and so abridges the right to free speech.
One problem of the existing situation is that conservatism and liberalism are not simple polar oppos...
One problem of the existing situation is that conservatism and liberalism are not simple polar opposites, with some stations putting out one view and others providing a clear alternative. Firstly talk radio presents a particular type of conservative viewpoint. It is libertarian on some issues (low taxes, guns, opposition to a welfare state) but authoritarian on others (against gay marriage freedom of choice on abortion, and the rights of terrorist suspects). It is in favour of military engagement abroad but protectionist on economic issues. So there is not even a range of conservative opinion on offer over the airwaves. Secondly, pluralism is valued by liberal broadcasters by their very nature, but not by conservative ones who are convinced that only their way is right. As a result conservative stations have squeezed out opposing views entirely, while liberal broadcasters are still happy to give airtime to right-wing views alongside those of others.
Talk radio actually covers a wide spectrum of opinion – there is no plot in which its commentators agree a common line on the key issues of the day. In any case, the audience for talk radio is media savvy – they know that particular hosts and stations have particular viewpoints and take account of this when forming their views. Almost no one listens only to talk radio in order to learn about current affairs – citizens expose themselves to a wide range of material, including television, radio, newspapers and the internet. Because there is already this wide range of competing views available every day, there is no need to require each station to pointlessly reflect all of these in its own broadcasting.
The Fairness Doctrine is reasonable because airwaves are a public good and belong to the people thro...
The Fairness Doctrine is reasonable because airwaves are a public good and belong to the people through their government. If there were a free for all, allowing anyone to broadcast on any frequency they choose, then signals would interfere with each other and prevent vital police, emergency and military communications from operating effectively. Radio and television frequencies are therefore not owned by broadcasting companies but only licensed to them by the state. Given that many more people would like to broadcast than there is radio spectrum available for them, the state has to choose who should get a license. So it is fair for the state to apply conditions to these licenses, including the requirement that they offer balanced access to a range of viewpoints. This makes public broadcasting different from cable, where the companies actually own the means of distributing their content and should therefore be allowed to do what they like with it.
The introduction of the Fairness Doctrine was justified due to the scarcity of radio spectrum, but this argument no longer applies. Modern broadcasting technology has allowed many more stations to compete over the airwaves without danger of interference, so audiences are guaranteed a multiplicity of viewpoints. Even since 1987 we have entered a completely new media world of which traditional broadcasting is only a small part. Citizens today are exposed to speech and opinion from a great many outlets, including cable, satellite, and online phenomena such as web radio, blogs, online discussion forums, email bulletins, newspaper and pressure group sites, etc. Newspapers are still highly influential – and like the new media, they were never subjected to a fairness doctrine at any point. Reimposing such a requirement on broadcasters alone would not only be pointless in today’s media marketplace, it would also unfairly limit their ability to compete in a fast-moving digital world.
The ownership structure of the radio market is unfair, dominated as it is by a few big companies who...
The ownership structure of the radio market is unfair, dominated as it is by a few big companies who impose a right-wing agenda on the stations they control. An analysis of the content broadcast by the top five station-owning companies showed that over 90% of the talk they broadcast is right-wing in nature. Other voices not given a look-in. Given election results, this clearly cannot be reflecting any competitive forces but is instead pushing a particular political viewpoint upon the marketplace. In such a case of market failure it is necessary for the state to require free access to the airwaves for alternative viewpoints.
The ownership of broadcasting stations does respond to market forces – it is easy to establish new stations, and in a highly competitive market no company will run programming which alienates consumers for fear of commercial failure. In fact the FCC regulates media ownership very carefully to ensure that no one company dominates either nationally or in particular local markets. It is this interference which is truly hard to justify. \
Ultimately the left is just sore that their views are unpopular with the American people and that no one wants to listen to liberal stations like Air American Radio. Now they want to force liberal propaganda on everyone because they trust neither the American people nor the free market.\
Regulation may be difficult but broadcasting so politically important to our democracy that we must ...
Regulation may be difficult but broadcasting so politically important to our democracy that we must make the attempt. Even if regulation is imperfect, we can still establish a new norm and thereby greatly improve broadcasting. In fact, when the Fairness Doctrine was in operation the FCC used a very light touch in order to ensure balanced content. Far from insisting on equal time for all possible viewpoints, it simply required that some time be given to different opinions and gave people a platform from which to speak out when they perceived that coverage was biased. After all, similar requirements for fair access operate in many other countries (e.g. the UK, Australia) without any problems.
It is impossible to regulate broadcasting fairly and it will not be possible to limit future government intervention if a renewed Fairness Doctrine is once implemented. Who is to say what constitutes “balance” or what kinds of views deserve access to the airwaves? Will we need a new bureaucracy to monitor the output of stations and impose quotas for different opinions? Should communists or islamists get guaranteed airtime? The FCC and broadcasting companies will be continually tied down by lawsuits from disgruntled pressure groups seeking a public platform. Already the Federal Communications Commission is politicised, with officials often divided upon party lines; the right to meddle in programming will make this much worse. And dangers can be seen in other countries, such as Italy, Russia or Venezuela, where the government’s right to interfere in broadcasting is used for narrow party advantage rather than the public good.
What do you think?