Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bringing back unfairness in broadcasting

Paul Greenberg reports on what the Fairness Doctrine was like in the supposedly good ol' days when we only had a few outlets on news.
For in those days impartial government bureaucrats enforced the rule that, for every opinion voiced on radio and television, equal time had to be allotted to its opposite, and all was right with the world.

It all sounds fair enough - like so many abstract doctrines - if you didn't have to live with it. To appreciate, and apprehend, how the "Fairness" Doctrine really operated, just listen to one of my heroes in this business - Nat Hentoff, a true liberal who has seen it all in his couple of lifetimes in Medialand:

"I was in radio under the reign of the Fairness Doctrine, at WMEX in Boston in the 1940s and early '50s," he remembers. And being Nat Hentoff, he naturally aired a few of his opinions from time to time. Uh oh. "Suddenly Fairness Doctrine letters started coming in from the FCC and our station's front office panicked. Lawyers had to be summoned, tapes of accused broadcasters had to be examined with extreme care; voluminous responses had to be prepared and sent. After a few of these FCC letters, our boss announced that there would be no more controversy of any sort on WMEX. We had been muzzled."

The Unfairness Doctrine had claimed another victim. Which was just the way the mainstream media wanted it. Why debate others' ideas when it was so much easier to stifle them with lawyer letters?

It was a deliberate strategy. To quote one of the Democratic Party's apparatchiks back then, Bill Ruder: "Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too costly to continue."
So once the lawyers got a hold on what could and couldn't be broadcast, what sort of news did we get?
Broadcast opinion was soon largely reserved for the right people with the right opinions, that is, moderately leftish ones. Or what our guest speaker called "legitimate" news outlets - like the New York Times instead of all those loudmouths agitating over the airwaves.

The gamut of political opinion on the television networks, all three of them in those pre-cable days, ran roughly from center to left-of-center.

This is the period today's nostalgic gliberals refer to as The Golden Age of television news. Golden for their opinions, anyway. At a time when the tube was still the dominant, shaping medium, ABC, NBC and CBS were the holy trinity. Any other viewpoint was considered less than respectable, even heretical, or just ignored. Which was easy to do if they couldn't be aired.
No wonder liberals want to return to those lovely days when they totally controlled the news disseminated to the public. But now we have an entirely new environment with 24-hour cable news, the internet, and talk radio. The elites don't have total control anymore. You can't put that genie back in the bottle. But maybe they can take out that pesky talk radio. Many Democrats in the Congress have advocated bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. Expect that to be one of the bills headed to the president's desk next year if they gain a supermajority in the Senate. And don't depend on Barack Obama to stand in the way of this effort to hush Rush.
There are always those who'd like to improve on freedom of speech. Shut up, they explain. All they want is what's fair, meaning their idea of what's fair. There's a difference.

They sigh for the good old days when riffraff like Rush Limbaugh and numerous imitators could be shut out of the public discourse. It is those who claim to speak for The People who resent it most when people choose to listen to somebody else.

We knew who our betters were in the good old days, when we tuned in to find out what was politically correct long before it had acquired that label. No wonder our current elite, or those who would like to be, dream of restoring the Fairness Doctrine in all its constricting glory.

On his Web site, Barack Obama says the country should "clarify the public interest obligation of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum." I'm not sure what that means, but I have an idea. The senator can put all the lipstick he wants to on the Fairness Doctrine, but it would still be unfair. Those who wax sentimental for it mystify me. I would much prefer to win a fair fight, or even lose one, rather than tie the other guy's hands. For the best response to an idea one detests is not to suppress it, but to offer a better idea. It's only fair.
Liberals have tried to compete on talk radio but that hasn't worked out for them. All that is left is to try to bring the lawyers into the deal and use a new Fairness Doctrine to shut up conservatives on the radio. That's the type of fairness that they like.