January 18, 2007

Hooray for the Fairness Doctrine!

Hatched by Dafydd

Ah ah, now I know what some of you are thinking: some portion of you will read the headline, then race off to write blogposts saying Big Lizards has gone Socialist! I suggest, to avoid embarassment, that you read to the end (not short; sorry) before firing up Movable Type, TypePad, or WordPress (or LiveJournal, Blogger -- oh, fill in the blank yourself.)

Seriously, measure six times before you leap...

First, it's important to understand the history of the "Fairness" Doctrine -- in particular, its enforcement. The doctrine itself has been around in one form or another since the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was founded in 1927; when the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) succeeded the FRC in 1934, they kept the doctrine... on paper.

But in reality, it's hard to think of a time when it was enforced to truly bring about "fairness." Although there was some anti-war agitation allowed on radio in the 1930s (especially from the Left during the Hitler-Stalin Pact), after Pearl Harbor, I don't believe any station would have dared broadcast such. There were, of course, still plenty of people who espoused the pacifist point of view, even after Nazi Germany declared war on us; but those folks were quite rightly deemed to be lunatics and were denied a broadcast forum.

In the early 1950s, radio and television were pretty conservative; think of shows like I Love Lucy, Ed Sullivan, and the early days of Gunsmoke (in the days of Chester, when it was 30 minutes and in glorious black and white). They reflected the zeitgeist of the days of President Eisenhower and the McCarthy hearings.

That is when the American Left began a concerted and relentless campaign to take over the airwaves, following their successful seizure of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. By the late 1950s, TV shows like Walt Disney's Zorro were hitting many themes of liberalism, from race relations to Indian nationalism to anti-vigilantism... themes that could easily be supported by many conservatives, but which were a serious problem for the budding movement of libertarian conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Barry Goldwater (to the extent that such programs extended beyond the public to the private sphere) -- and especially for conservative Democrats ("Dixiecrats").

You might point to this era as a time when the Fairness Doctrine was being used to bring more fairness to the airwaves; and that would be true, if the pendulum had stopped when it hit equality. But in reality, the Left never had any intention of allowing equal time for conservatives or traditionalists. As the Left commissioned more and more of their own into the positions of power (producers, editors, writers, and especially network executives), they captained the vessel right past the midpoint of the ocean of unfairness and headed, full steam ahead, into the rocky shoals of leftist monopoly.

As we entered the late 1960s, it was very hard to find a show on the air, either on radio or television, that did not enunciate a number of very liberal viewpoints; heading into the 1970s, this accelerated. The first few seasons of All In the Family were relatively even-handed, balancing the ranting of Archie Bunker with the shallow sloganeering of Mike and Gloria Stivik. But in the later seasons, this changed: in short order, every show was about Archie's insanity running head-on into the "reality" of liberalism -- and liberalism always got the better of it.

Even cowboy shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and the Pig Valley went decidedly left. If you watch a 1970s season of Bonanza, you might wonder whether it was produced by the Democratic National Committee: nearly every other episode was about some rapacious (conservative) businessman exploiting poor blacks, Indians, or Hop Sing; or about some sleazy, underhanded racist stirring up the citizens of Virginia City to lynch some innocent minority (usually for the murder committed by the underhanded racist himself -- or his weak and cowardly son).

Throughout the 70s and 80s, fiction shows like M*A*S*H and Hill Street Blues reliably cranked out very liberal bromides to an increasingly apathetic TV audience. The "Fairness" Doctrine was gone fishing.

On the news front, the same thing was happening. During the 1960s, Walter Cronkite of the CBS Evening News was the preeminent news anchor. He was always skeptical about the mission in Vietnam; in 1967, he turned decisively against it, even going so far as to falsely report the result of the Tet Offensive, portraying it as a huge victory for the Viet Cong and a catastrophic defeat for America (in fact, militarily, it was precisely the opposite, and the VC were finished as a military force from that moment). From then on, Cronkite beat the anti-war drum louder and louder, and more blatantly.

How well was the Fairness Doctrine enforced during the period of 1965 through its demise in 1987? Simple: it was not enforced at all for private broadcasts. Who was the pro-war, conservative counterpart to "Uncle Walter?" There was none. Neither the (Chet) Huntley-(David) Brinkley Report nor (after 1970) the NBC Nightly News (Brinkley and John Chancellor), nor the then-minor ABC News, were "pro-war" to counterbalance Cronkite's emphatically anti-war tilt. At best, they were a little more neutral -- but they still took their cues from Cronkite, particularly about the Tet Offensive and its significance.

Other news shows besides the nightly news leaned left even more markedly, from 60 Minutes to 20/20. Again, the FCC never seemed to order these shows to give equal time to conservative viewpoints; on This Week, for example, conservative commentary was limited to one Republican against two or three liberal Democratic commenters, such as Sam Donaldson and Cokey Roberts and whoever was guest commenter (e.g., George Snuffleupagus); David Brinkley tried to hew a middle line between left and right, making it 2 or 3 to 1 with one abstention. Worse, the lone Republican was George F. Will -- who is a big-government, statist Republican -- making it 3-1 with two abstentions. Where was the vaunted Fairness Doctrine during its last two decades?

In 1987, the FCC commissioners appointed by President Ronald W. Reagan voted to abolish the doctrine. The Democratic Congress tried to restore it; but when Reagan vetoed the act, the Left could not muster enough Republican votes to overturn the veto. The "Fairness" Doctrine sank into mostly deserved oblivion.

Its death prompted the largest eruption of free speech across the airwaves -- especially talk radio -- since the advent of broadcast radio itself. Cable TV also took off after the FCC (and the courts) made it clear that the FCC lacked regulatory authority over non-broadcast television.

Much of that content was decidedly conservative, especially the medium of talk radio, led by the Rush Limbaugh Show; political talk-shows had existed for decades, but their growth was stunted by the "Fairness" Doctrine itself: liberal political shows on talk-radio were allowed to proceed unimpeded; but their conservative counterparts were mercilessly pummeled by the FCC throughout the 70s and early 80s.

It's natural that the Left should now pine for the return of the doctrine; they assume that it will be as before, with dyed-in-the-wool liberals and lefties enforcing the policy as if it were the Liberalness Doctrine instead. "Right-wing radio" would probably disappear, and (the Left appears to believe) so would Fox News Channel. We would return to the good old days, when the Left had a virtual monopoly on broadcast speech... and the best the Right could extort was a 2-minute response to a station editorial.

I doubt that would happen; conservatives were rolled like drunks back in the 50s; they never saw it coming. Today, new media itself would fight back against such a resurgence of de facto censorship. Even so, it would be a terrible thing for the Fairness Doctrine to be revived -- for private TV and radio broadcasts.

But back to the title of this post: given this history, how could I possibly say "hooray for the Fairness Doctrine?" I mean that only in the most limited possible sense:

During the doctrinal days, there was one broadcast venue that consistently gave significantly more airtime to conservative and anti-liberal viewpoints more than any other... public TV and radio. Mind, they still tilted very strongly left, especially with shows such as Point of View and Frontline. But they did pay rather more than lip service to free-speech fairness with shows like the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and William F. Buckley's Firing Line, along with various financial shows. Michael Medved was one of the two reviewers on Sneak Previews (the other being ultra-leftie Jeffrey Lyons) from 1985, replacing another ultra-leftie, Neal Gabler.

And in fact, assuming one can get past the essential free-speech contradiction of taxpayer-supported political speech at all, then surely public political speech should in fact be balanced between a multitude of different viewpoints.

Best of all would be no taxpayer-supported political speech at all; if you want taxpayer-funded classical-music concerts or shows about making cheese -- or even quasi-political, mostly science shows like Cosmos, or historical shows like the Adams Chronicles, or artsy stuff like I, Clavdivs (well, that's how it looked on the screen!) -- I don't mind: it's a cheap way to promote American and Western culture.

But there are degrees of wrongness; and taxpayer-supported political speech that is entirely (or mostly) one-sided is much more abominable than taxpayer-supported political speech that makes a strong effort to be at least bipartisan, if not multipartisan.

And at last, I think you can see where I'm going: I fully support the Fairness Doctrine -- but only applied to public TV and public radio broadcasts, and only if we cannot eliminate public funding of them altogether. As well, we should create a sub-commission of the FCC that has binding authority to say whether the doctrine is being fulfilled on the public airwaves -- a panel with equal numbers of members appointed by the two major parties -- though I doubt that can be justified constitutionally (congressional usurpation of executive authority). Maybe some way can be got around that (make it voluntary but traditional to let the out-party appoint half) to avoid the FCC running amok when president and Congress are both controlled by the same party.

In that respect only do I support the putative Fairness Doctrine... and even that would be unnecessary if we didn't use public funding to promote political views at all. Somehow, however, I doubt that liberals will be interested in this compromise.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 18, 2007, at the time of 4:20 PM

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The following hissed in response by: hunter

Dream on.
In Kucinich land, 'Fairness doctrine' is the ability of democrats appointed to the FCC to censor shows democrats don't like. They will censor these shows fairly by censoring them all.
PBS will receive massively larger tax payer subsidies from special excise taxes on the tax paying part of the airwaves. Pacifica will get special subsidies. Those Kristianist radio stations, using *public* airwaves, will have to cease broadcast. Afterall, since the *public* airwaves are government controled on behalf of the people, use of them by Kristianists is the same as the state sponsoring religion. And afterall, the moslems need their stations.
The (un)Fairness doctrine is nothing but a poorly veiled attempt by people who ahte freedom for people who disagree with them to silence those they dislike. And they dislike a whole lotta folk.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 4:56 PM

The following hissed in response by: Navyvet

The "Fairness" Doctrine does not apply to news broadcasts or entertainment programs. It is "opinion" broadcasts that go under the knife. (And then there's the matter of opinion pieces that masquerade as "newscasts"...but we won't go there--yet.)

For example, if the FD returns, a radio station that carries three hours of Rush Limbaugh will have to carry three hours of Al Franken (or an equivalent). Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly would have to be "balanced" by a Chris Matthews or (shudder) Keith Olbermann.

Of course, this knife does cut both ways, in that networks such as CNN, MSNBC, etc. will be required to broadcast "conservative" viewpoints to offset any liberal commentary.

The most frightening thing about the FD is that third parties can request and must be granted equal time if they disagree with an opinion-based viewpoint. Can you say "The Cindy Sheehan Show"?

Considering the disproportionate number of liberal outlets on TV compared to conservative TV outlets, and the success of conservative talk radio compared to the dismal failure of liberal talk radio, it's a good bet the "Fairness" Doctrine will remain on a back shelf in a closet on the Democratic side of congress. For all that liberals have the long knives out for Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck, they have much to lose on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and even the big three TV networks.

Now, if the "Fairness" Doctrine could be applied to newspapers (it can't)...well, that's another story.

The above hissed in response by: Navyvet [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 7:22 PM

The following hissed in response by: Pyrran

From all the radio interviews I've listened to, it seems that the Democrats may alter the current language of the original Fairness Doctrine so that a committee of some sort decides that equal time should be granted to an opposing viewpoint. I'm guessing that any requests for time on CNN, NBC, ABC, MSNBC,NPR, or PBS will be denied, while requests for time on Hannity, Limbaugh, etc will always be granted. That time will eat away at their ratings because no one will want to listen to Al Franken, Al Gore, Al Sharpton, et all, so they'll change stations. In this way, the gains in equality made by talk radio will be diminished. Its so like the Democrats. Their lefty radio station goes down like the Titanic because they have no listeners. Their views fail in the marketplace of ideas, so they ram them down America's collective throat with a legislative plunger.

The above hissed in response by: Pyrran [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2007 9:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: kimsch

With all of cable there really isn't a need for "public" television anymore. I agree that funding for it ought to go away (but just try to get rid of any government type department...)

The Fairness Doctrine only applies to broadcast TV and radio so it doesn't apply to Satellite radio or cable or satellite TV. CNN and Fox News are safe. ABC, NBC and CBS are covered, as are all the local stations.

Newspapers were never covered by the Fairness Doctrine...too bad.

I remember those editorial responses that they used to have on the local news programs...

The above hissed in response by: kimsch [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2007 9:27 AM

The following hissed in response by: BrickSykes

Cute Hat, but you have it on Backwards, as well as some of the subsequent commenters. While an interesting theory, it fails for a couple of reasons.

Ever hear of "Market Analysis?" Most 'Liberal Demons' you reference (Hollywood, etc.) are NOT the Ogres you suggest. They plan relatively Nothing! They supply the public what the public demands. Their market research indicates to them what the public will watch, using "Pilots" to determine real world interest. Or do you believe they can MAKE you watch what they want you to watch?

What you are calling "Liberal" is actually Americans attempting to apply "Reason" to our daily discourse. These attempts are countered by theorists (revisionists) like you on behalf of the "Bidness" community, because if Reason prevailed on the street, much of the stuff Bidness provides the public would remain unsold. Reason would disallow marketing fraud, false advertising, deceptive trade practices, etc., so Bidness does not want Reason to be a part of the picture. That is why all Broadcast Media has been bought up by Bidness, so they can call ALL the shots, including eliminating the Fairness Doctrine.

So, you have a Cute Hat, but you're wearing it backwards. Your RightWing fans seem to like it, though.


The above hissed in response by: BrickSykes [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2007 5:31 AM

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