Fairness Doctrine

Posted on July 29, 2010

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The Fairness Doctrine is a policy regarding public distribution and broadcasting of news and opinion.  It appeared in 1949 and required that broadcasters present both sides of a controversial story, namely anything that was of particular importance to the American electorate.  (Wikipedia has a fairly complete history and explanation here.)  Since that time, varying degrees of political interest in the subject have risen and fallen.  The last major decision took place in 1987, when the FCC voluntarily dropped the policy.  Since then the occasional politician has sought to revive the discussion, but mostly people just talk about it like it’s still an issue.

But in some ways, it is.  I stumbled across this article by a New Yorks Times columnist.  This is a response to that article.  This is a satirical rendering of the same.

I find several things interesting about this debate:

1) The idea that an information-provider (television or radio broadcaster, website, newspaper, etc.) must provide opposing commentary to anything they publish is repugnant.  When I debate an issue with someone, I give my side of the story.  I don’t try to explain their side.  That’s up to them.  And if the people listening to our debate don’t want to hear the other person’s views, that isn’t my fault.

2) Any attempt to legislate information-provider content is a restriction of speech.  The First Amendment says that our government can’t stop us from speaking our minds.  To say that we have to spend an equal amount of time speaking the other person’s mind is the same as saying, “Hey, stop saying what you want to say and say this instead.”  The Fairness Doctrine was a violation of the First Amendment from day one, and how it ever survived as long as it did, I’ll probably never understand.

3) People like this commentator are the reason the Fairness Doctrine is still looked at in a “nostalgic” sense.  He opens his article by citing examples of — and I’m just guessing at his thoughts here — what the world is now like without government to hold our hands and keep us from fighting with each other over stupid issues.  The problem with this is that his examples aren’t relevant to his point.  Take the Black Panther voting “scandal.”  By citing it as an example of the problem with biased reporting in America, he means to imply that we should have restrictions about what we say to each other, and how we say it.  Ignoring, for the moment, that this idea is a violation of constitutional rights, the author has missed a vital fact: you can change the channel!  No individual in this nation is required to sit through the news and opinions of any information-provider over any other.  Further, we are all reasonable, intelligent adults.  Why should the responsibility for acquiring balanced information rest with the providers?  It’d be the same as saying, “Every insurance agency must provide customers with an accurate listing of rates from competitors.”  It would destroy the market, it would make consumers lazy, and (most important) IT’S NOT THEIR JOB!

4) To return to the original article, I think it’s fascinating that the New York Times author doesn’t commit to any one opinion about the issue.  He waffles, saying on one hand that Google is poised to influence and control the internet economy, and should be monitored so that it “leads us fairly to where we want to go;” but on the other, that any attempt to monitor Google’s work would restrict their ability to do what they’ve done so well, thereby harming their business model.  Yet the other response focuses only on the idea that this author wants us to regulate Google (and presumably others like them).  I don’t see an overt claim to that effect.  It seems that counter opinions are influenced by the perception of political bias in the New York Times.  Still, the satirical article seems to contain a dearth of information about the subject that’s actually quite interesting.

5) I seem to have run out of things to say about the subject, so in summation: there is no need for or right of government to dictate the content of any information-provider.  Any individual who thinks differently is wrong.  Stop trying to tell people how to get their information.  The American public is intelligent and capable of keeping themselves informed.  If we were all truly concerned about media bias influencing our information, we’d enact programs to provide every citizen with access to a computer and an internet connection.

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Posted in: Philosophy, Politics