January 28, 2007
Reviving the Fairness Doctrine?

While issues of net neutrality and the Deleting Online Predators Act continue to be discussed, add another topic that has strong implications for the media industry--discussion of returning to the Fairness Doctrine of times past.

Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic Representative from Ohio, has emphasized his interest in challenging the FCC and potentially in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine on his road to the presidency, as he was named a little over a week ago to be the new head of the House Government Reform Committee's Domestic Policy panel. He had already made announcements earlier by emphasizing that there would be discussion of media ownership issues and reviving the Fairness Doctrine. He calls media the "servant of very narrow corporate interests." And, while I find some of this rhetoric of the narrow-minded sort one would expect from the Media Education Foundation, as I've written about before, there is certainly danger in a lack of diverse voices as well. However, I'm generally wary of overregulation, so I plan to continue watching this issue develop at arm's length for awhile.

Ira Teinowitz with TelevisionWeek provides a succinct background on the Fairness Doctrine, for those not already familiar:

The Fairness Doctrine, adopted in 1949 by the FCC and generally abandoned during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, required stations airing information on controversial issues of public importance to offer contrasting points of views. From the 1970s to the early 1980s it was interpreted as also requiring stations that presented attacks or criticism to seek out and provide equal time for the other side. Any plans to revive it would likely spark a major fight with broadcasters. Recently when President Bush announced his Iraq policy in a prime-time speech, the Democratic Party response by Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin wasn't aired by most broadcasters. The Fairness Doctrine could have required broadcasters to air that response.

I have mixed feelings about the Fairness Doctrine, particularly in the ways in which it immediately raises questions about what "fairness" really is, especially in the case of marginalized voices. For instance, do organizations like NAMBLA get the right to speak out in return to groups looking to catch child predators? What about the KKK or Neo-Nazi groups or communists or a variety of other groups who have been declared as politically troublesome at some point? Or is "fairness" just about mainstream voices? How popular does a voice have to be to receive equal treatment?

Obviously, these issues have stirred up a variety of commentators, both those who have legitimate reason to be unhappy with the current lack of balance in reporting perspectives, such as the fact that most political debates only include the candidates of the top couple of parties or just the lack of news coverage that Teinowitz emphasizes with her pointing out the lack of coverage to congressional response of the president's plan. On the other hand, there are other voices speaking out in anger at the ways in which this punishes the outwardly opinionated while protecting the supposed objectivity of balanced journalism, which often does NOT provide the balance it implies.

For instance, over at Intellectual Conservative, Selwyn Duke compares the situation to that of the barker and the shill, in that the voices who are obvious about what they are doing, the barkers, are punished while the shills can continue going on under the guise of perceived objectivity.

While I don't buy this idea that the mass media is predominately liberal, anymore than I buy the MEF arguments that the mass media is by its very nature wholly conservative, I think that Duke's arguments do emphasize some of the problems with trying to "legislate" balance, since balance can seldom, if ever, exist.

My plan would be to find as many ways as possible for people to voice their opinions, to put emphasis on increasing access rather than regulating content, but I realize that it's a tricky terrain to navigate. I certainly sympathize with the feeling that the hidden subjectivity of American journalism can often be dangerous, and that's why I find the blogosphere and other alternative voices to often be refreshing, as well as the editorial/reporter voices of an increasing number of journalists who wear their biases on their sleeves but still try and provide balance in a professional manner.

The problem is that everyone's definition of fairness is different, and finding the correct balance is not easy to legislate. I sympathize with the need for more balanced coverage, especially for third-party candidates, but I'm wary at this point as to what the Fairness Doctrine may have to offer in its reincarnation.