Politics & Policy

Radio Free Congress

I had planned on talking a bit today about Venezuela. The president there doesn’t like the way his media is covering him, so he’s doing away with the free press. He’s established rules on what he thinks is fair, and he’s denying licenses to television and radio stations that don’t play by government rules.

I can’t criticize him now, though. After all, how would it seem for me to complain about another country, when our own congressional leadership is trying to put the same sort of rules in place here? To do so, they’re pulling the Fairness Doctrine out of the dustbin of history.

The Fairness Doctrine is an artifact from the days when there were only a handful of television channels and radio stations on our dials. Then, there might have been something to the fear that somebody might get control of all the media outlets in an area — so equal time rules were put in place.

As television and radio stations increased, it became clear that the rule was a bust. Instead of protecting free speech, it imposed costs on broadcasters that killed political discussion entirely.  Why run the risk of dealing with anything controversial and having the regulators and the lawyers come down on you? Instead of talking about issues, news directors used stopwatches to measure candidates’ airtime.

Finally, in 1987, the Federal Communications Commission ended the antiquated policy. Today, with more cable and local access channels than anybody can keep track of — the equal time rule makes even less sense. Throw in the Internet, and it’s absurd.

The real issue here is not what you “can” see or hear — which is what the Fairness Doctrine was about originally. It’s what you’re “choosing” to see or hear.

Insiders say it was the collapse of the radio station “Air America” that led to this attempt to retool the Fairness Doctrine as a form of de facto censorship. I guess the idea is that, if you can’t compete in the world of ideas, you pass a law that forces radio stations to air your views. In effect, it would force a lot of radio stations to drop some talk show hosts — because they would lose money providing equal airtime to people who can’t attract a market or advertisers.

The funny thing is that the success of the current crop of radio talk show hosts is due, in part, to a lot of people’s perception that broadcast television doesn’t give the views of their audience a fair shake. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, since I dabble in radio myself, but this media used to be viewed as a kind of broadcast ghetto. The bicoastal elite had such a grip on the major newspapers and television networks; they pretty much ignored the hinterlands. It was media flyover country. 

Now congressional leaders say they want to “level the playing field” there too — meaning they want to diminish the importance of conservative talk radio. In other words, they don’t trust the results of freedom and the marketplace. Why am I not surprised?

© ABC Radio

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