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We Need a Fairness Doctrine For Media

Original Article

Liberals are hailing a report that calls for federal regulations to end the “structural imbalance in political talk radio.” Two think tanks, the Center for American Progress and the Free Press, complain that more than 90 percent of the programs on talk radio feature conservative hosts and themes while only 10 percent are “progressive.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has promised to examine the report’s recommendations for possible legislation and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says flatly, “It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they’re in a better position to make a decision.”

That really is a good, old-fashioned attitude, all right. But under the so-called Fairness Doctrine that the Federal Communications Commission pursued until 1987, many broadcasters observed that government regulation actually stifled the free market in opinion and effectively relegated politics to little-watched schedules on Sunday mornings. It was known informally as “the public affairs ghetto.” Stations presented only as much public debate as they needed to secure renewal of their public licenses.

But the new think tank study insists that talk radio is “imbalanced” and that the imbalance is due largely to the preferences of large radio conglomerates that are run by middle-aged white men. They demand that the government step in and break up the big radio chains and require as much progressive programming as conservative.

At this point Republicans, perhaps surprisingly, are rubbing their hands and hoping for a fight on the Fairness Doctrine. They think the threats from liberal legislators will backfire, helping to unite and activate the nation’s 50 million or so talk radio listeners, most of them conservatives, and get them to the polls.

But the right could be making a mistake. Instead of opposing a new “Fairness Doctrine,” perhaps conservatives should embrace it — providing, that is, that the new policy is extended to all media, not just talk radio. (Do I notice some “progressives” throwing down their papers in disgust?)

Let’s start with that most public of federal broadcast entities, National Public Radio. Increasingly, its sponsors range from foundations with an ideological ax to grind to law firms and national teachers unions. Conservatives find that stories they care about just don’t make it onto NPR schedules. When the rare conservative gets invited to participate on an NPR issues panel, somehow there are two or three liberals facing him, with a liberal host recognizing the speakers.

Next, the new Fairness Doctrine should apply to television, including not just PBS, but also CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN and MSNBC, as well as the FOX channel. When newscasters seek legally required balance on a given issue, let’s see if they can be persuaded to find the most articulate conservative — not the most egregious and unpopular — to reply to the liberal voice.

In addition to cable broadcasting, the new Fairness Doctrine also should reach into the press. I know print media have always been exempt, but, hey, judicial precedents change. Newspapers and news magazines not only use the public mails to ship some of their goods (often at subsidized rates), but they also run their delivery trucks over public roads and park their corner coin-boxes on public sidewalks. The current philosophy of government seems to be, if it moves, the government has a say in it, so why should newspapers get away with sitting in aloof Olympian judgment on everyone else?

It is never going to happen, you say. Well, OK, but let’s just open up the fairness issue as wide as possible and see where the debate takes us.

It should be exciting, especially when we have congressional hearings that extend the concept of political and cultural “fairness” still further — to Hollywood.

Or maybe the left would be smart to drop the matter altogether.

Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Civic Leadership.
Bruce Chapman