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The Ornery Observer
January 26, 2009

Fairness Doctrine:
Selective Use on the Left, Hypocritical Opposition on the Right

by Paul Gottfried

An idea floating around, mostly as a scare tactic on the Democratic Party left, concerns reviving the Fairness Doctrine. According to this doctrine, which the FCC applied intermittently after 1949 but then ceased to apply in the 1980s, those who are licensed to use the airwaves should be required to “present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced way.”

The idea of the Fairness Doctrine seems fair enough. Voters should be exposed to both sides of “controversial issues” in order to make informed electoral decisions, and access to the media is necessarily limited by those who have the means to make their views known. This was the view of even a very non-radical Supreme Court Justice, Byron White, who in a decision rendered in 1959 stressed that a licensee is not entitled “to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow-citizens.”

This situation has not changed much because of satellite and Internet communication. Control of the major networks and of national newspapers brings much better opportunities for influencing than does setting up a regional satellite in Fargo, North Dakota. A certain argument for balance would still apply to the national media, although the number of broadcasting vehicles has grown exponentially during the last 30 years. Not all of these vehicles are of equal value to their users, any more than all commercial enterprises yield the same profits. It is, after all, significant that the views I am expressing in this column would never appear in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.

But applying the Fairness Doctrine unfairly poses dangers. Outrage from the other side becomes inevitable when Democrats Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Richard Durbin tell us that they would like Congress to reapply the Fairness Doctrine, and when they and other members of their party point accusingly to Rush Limbaugh and other radio personalities. GOP fundraisers have gone to town soliciting contributions for a crusade against the Fairness Doctrine. Supposedly, the FCC under Democratic prodding will force all Republican media personalities to give equal time to Democrats in order to weaken the GOP.

Although the new president has repeatedly denied that he intends to pursue this partisan course, FOX, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, and National Review have all attacked the Democrats for seeking to curb political discussion through the reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine.

There are indeed obstacles to reintroducing this doctrine fairly. For one thing, it has already become a political football, and it is hard to see how it could be applied in the future without becoming even more of what it is now. Second, its application when it was in force was sometimes quite arbitrary. One of its more questionable applications brought fame or notoriety to Red Lion, Pennsylvania, in 1964. The case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, resulted in a ruinous decision against the Reverend Billy James Hargis, who ran the Christian Crusade network. Hargis had made a verbal assault against Democratic author Fred J. Cook, who had published a vitriolic screed against the “rightwing extremist” Barry Goldwater.

The court ruled that Hargis had to provide Cook with ample opportunity to defend his argument, on Hargis’ air space, and this equal time practice would have to be continued. Although the demand for balanced treatment was applied against Hargis, nothing like it was imposed on network television, which savaged Goldwater throughout the 1964 electoral season. Like antitrust suits, the Fairness Doctrine sounds better in theory than in practice.

At the same time, there is a crying need for opening the political discussion to points of view beside those of the Demo-Rep media monopoly. At this point, for example, it is impossible to tell movement conservative journalists from the authorized liberal ones. Both have become equally hysterical in their celebration of Barack Obama and his cabinet appointees. That is presumably because both groups wish to remain close to centers of power. The reason is not that GOP Obama-fan David Brooks, who writes for The New York Times, is quaking in his boots over a re-imposed Fairness Doctrine.

Among the most hypocritical protestors against this doctrine have been The Wall Street Journal, FOX, and The Washington Times, all of which have kept off their editorial pages or out of news programs the many millions of self-identified conservatives who do not support a neoconservative foreign policy. The GOP media have slandered and marginalized people on the right who have tried to be honorable dissenters, and the treatment of Congressman Ron Paul in the last presidential debate rarely rose above malicious ridicule.

Why shouldn’t the neocon-controlled Republicans be required to show the same tolerance of Republican dissenting views as they wish to have the Democrats show toward them? From personal experience, I can testify that Pelosi and Kerry are no more hostile to fairness than those who are sanctimoniously railing against them. The complaints on both sides are utterly hollow.

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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009 by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.  All rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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