No need for fairness doctrine

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:29 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Correction: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, is a national media watch group. It was implied to be linked to the Fairness Doctrine in an earlier version of this column.

As the proverbial bad penny, there are fundamentally terrible ideas which continue to resurface from time to time. The latest in this parade, reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine came about largely as a result of yet another “foot-in-mouth” reaction by Trent Lott, the well-meaning but often judgmentally challenged Senate Minority Whip.

During the heated and semi-coherent debate over immigration reform, Senator Lott allowed as how talk radio was running America and actually inferred that bringing back the Fairness Doctrine might provide a political balance on the air waves. Predictably, this ideological crumb was pounced upon without delay by those on the left or, “progressives,” as appears to be their current identity of choice, as a way to rid the radio waves of the evil Rush Limbaugh, et al.

This is a movement totally without merit or chance of success. In 1987, the FCC repealed the doctrine for two very good reasons. First, it was no longer necessary as the fivefold growth in nationwide numbers of radio and television stations and an even larger increase in households with radios and TV sets between 1949 and 1987 rendered domination of the airwaves impossible. Secondly and probably most important, it was obvious that the doctrine would no longer pass muster in judicial review in that it violated the freedom of speech and expression of the station owners.

The success of talk radio, regardless of its political content, is market-based, hardly different from that of other entertainment media. Yes, politics aside, talk radio is indeed entertainment, the economics of which are regulated in the marketplace where sponsors invest in those avenues of sufficient public interest to be profitable. Let’s face facts — if the people preferred a 24-7 diet of dueling chain saws or broadcast animal noises, the sponsors would be on board, competing to provide it.

The decision of which entertainment/information medium to view or to hear is one which is not the purview of government but rather of the public and the individual. Newspapers, cable, network and public television, the Internet and various print media provide an abundance of alternatives to those opposed to talk radio. The majority of those choices inarguably list leftward.

Locally, we have observed an example of that rule of public choice. In a well-intentioned attempt at balanced political coverage, radio station KFRU offered Larry King, Bernie Wolfe and Jim Hightower as follow on alternatives to Rush Limbaugh. In succession, all three failed miserably — no one listened and sponsors jettisoned them. The identical phenomenon has occurred nationwide as seen by the struggle against bankruptcy by Al Franken and his unrelenting anti-conservative network, Air America.

In spite of all the racket, I seriously doubt that much of the public is unduly influenced by the voice of talk radio, right, left or moderate. Most people, myself included, tend to turn to that which most closely approximates their particular view, presented in a format both interesting and entertaining. And, most are able also to accept those views with the necessary grain of salt in recognition of the obviously satirical commentary designed to incite the opposition to anger.

Why has liberal or progressive talk radio largely failed? Having listened to that available, I have found that unlike the conservatives, the progressives take themselves far too seriously­­ — by comparison, they appear angry, humorless and unremittingly hate-filled. While I don’t doubt their sincerity, there are far too few of us hungry for a steady diet of hate and discontent.

Until the “progressives” learn to balance their act, they will continue to cry “No fair!”

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

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