As right-wing political dominance wanes, politicians, pundits, and activists are waxing nostalgic for progressive policies of yesteryear — shaking loose the mothballs, dusting off the attic cake, looking for the polishing kit. One of these policies is the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that one broadcast opinion should be balanced by competing views.
Though jettisoned in 1985, it was the law for decades, going back clear to 1949. The policy, which was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, “grew out of concern that because of the large number of applications for radio station[s] being submitted and the limited number of frequencies available, broadcasters should make sure they did not use their stations simply as advocates with a singular perspective. Rather,” as Val E. Limburg explains, “they must allow all points of view.”
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the consensus became that the doctrine actually squelched speech, creating in that great 1980s phrase, “a chilling effect.”
A lot has changed since the 1980s — the rise of talk radio, for instance, and cable news, particularly Fox News. The talk radio format and the Fox network are overwhelmingly conservative. So the newly invigorated left wants to yank the Fairness Doctrine out of retirement and limit the reach of these voices. Today, for instance, Sen. Chuck Schumer advocated its reimplementation. This from a Fox News interview: “I think we should all be fair and balanced, don’t you?”More: “The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine want the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to limit pornography on the air. I am for that. . . . But you can’t say government hands off in one area to a commercial enterprise but you are allowed to intervene in another. That’s not consistent.”
It is inconsistent. The FCC shouldn’t decide what’s fair any more than it should dictate guidelines for any other sort of broadcast speech. Opponents of the Fairness Doctrine can’t have it both ways. But that shouldn’t end the discussion or somehow lend instant validity to Schumer’s position.
The rationale for the Fairness Doctrine (scarcity in media outlets) is all but obliterated today. There are more outlets for more opinions than ever before. The only purpose for reinstating the doctrine today is the one that led to its demise two decades ago: It’s a handy tool if you want to control other people’s speech.