No thanks to Fairness Doctrine part deux

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:35 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Leading the fears of many of my conservative colleagues following the election of Barack Obama and the possibility of an accompanying, filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate is that Congress will reimpose the Fairness Doctrine. Originally intended to encourage public dialogue on issues and to guarantee airing of both sides, the policy was established by the FCC in 1949, requiring radio and TV stations to provide equal time on matters of public interest.

As a matter of history, when the doctrine was imposed, there were but 2,881 radio and 98 television stations in existence. By the 1980s, those numbers had grown to some 10,000 and 1,400, along with a more than five-fold increase in individual radios and in home televisions. In reversing its early ruling (Red Lion Broadcasting V. FCC), the court in FCC V. League of Women’s Voters found the earlier rationale of asset scarcity to be flawed and too limiting of public debate to be fair.


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Accordingly, the FCC suspended all but two of the Fairness Doctrine’s rules, political editorial and personal attack. A subsequent attempt by Congress to legislate its resurrection was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan, with the override attempt also failing. In 2000, the aforementioned two corollary rules were repealed, signaling total demise of an unnecessary regulation. While monopoly of the airwaves may once have been a valid concern, the quantum increase in radio and television stations, coupled with the addition of cable news sources and the Internet superhighway, constraint on free speech or expression is no longer a valid threat.

It is for this reason, along with other related issues, that I find the dreaded reincarnation of the Fairness Doctrine to be but a remote possibility – for now, at least. Anyone who has an IQ exceeding room temperature and is attuned to world or national politics through watching, listening or reading must conclude that there is virtually no bar to communication of opinions, editorial comment, insults or personal attacks – ad hominem or relevant – by persons of any political, religious or purely hateful affiliation.

Oh yes, I have viewed and read of the threatened intent of such far-left proponents as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., to return “fairness” to the airwaves. I have also observed those petitions from the right aimed at blocking the “unfairness” doctrine and “saving” Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other conservatives of talk radio.

Nevertheless, I am heartened by the demonstration of some adult leadership on both sides of the political fence to include President-elect Obama, who indicated opposition to its reinstatement as late as June 2008. Via his press secretary, he named the doctrine an obstacle to the exchange of views about opening the airwaves and communications to as many diverse views as possible. One would hope that opinion prevails.

In reality, with the wide spectrum of media available to any who wish to broadcast a political viewpoint, that market will accept any message into which the public will tune. This is true regardless of political persuasion and is determined by the relative popularity of the messengers among the audience and the sponsors who finance the action. If there are no fans, realistically, there is no market, ergo, no sponsor.

While the more liberal left is well established in the mainstream print, television and Internet media, the conservative right has dominated talk radio for the fundamental reason that the public tunes in almost en masse. Over a number of years, the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Becks, et al. have thrived while the Jim Hightowers, the Larry Kings, the Bernie Schwartzes and Air America have not been competitive.

But in this age of instant and complete worldwide information available on the airwaves, it should be political suicide for one party to admit inferiority in competing for a slice of the radio audience. And, as they won the last two elections by significant margin, it would seem embarrassing for Democrats to continue whining about "unfair" conservative talk radio.

While talk radio is not very high on my current priorities, I sample the offerings of the right as well as the left wing. To those who decry Limbaugh and Hannity as evil personified, I defy them to counter with any evidence of common decency or objectivity on the part of Air America, Randi Rhodes or pundit-turned-Senate hopeful Al Franken. Liberal talk radio is free to compete for the audience on a level playing field — government censorship of any media outlet not only violates the First Amendment, it is shameful as well.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Robert craig December 2, 2008 | 12:03 p.m.

Colonel: Your perspective on this issue is a refreshing respite from the usual crocodile tears of many regarding the marketplace of ideas in the media. I frequent many sources for my news and entertainment and believe I'm smart enough to draw my own conclusions without the cocoon of "protection" ostensibly offered by the Fairness Doctrine.

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