Some Straight Talk About The Fairness Doctrine

[media id=7336] Here in Seattle -- the town Bill O'Reilly derides as a "far left haven" -- one would think that a properly functioning free market wo

Here in Seattle -- the town Bill O'Reilly derides as a "far left haven" -- one would think that a properly functioning free market would create offerings on local AM radio reflecting the political climate: generally liberal to middle of the road, with a few dedicated conservatives hanging in there.

But that's not what we get.

We have three all-conservative talk stations in town. The largest news station has a popular talk show featuring a right-winger and a fake centrist. The other big news-talk station, KIRO, is supposed to be a pan-ideological station; it features a popular centrist Democrat but also one of the most obnoxious right-wingers -- and no genuine liberals, having dumped David Goldstein awhile back. And then we have a little Air America station that's reasonably popular but only runs nationally syndicated material and does nothing locally.

I have friends in the Bay Area who tell me it's not any better there. (I'm sure readers from there can fill us in down in the comments.) And in Washington, D.C., the owners are shutting down their progressive talk station in a population that's decidedly Democratic.

It's happening all over, and it's a problem, because these are the public airwaves, not just the private commodities that are radio stations -- which is why we have a Federal Communications Commission in the first place. We need to talk seriously about reforming radio so that the public's well-being is served on its airwaves.

Now, we've had a little fun making fun of the right-wing paranoids for getting all worked up about this issue well in advance of it actually surfacing. But now it is in fact surfacing: Sen. Debbie Stabenow earlier this week said she'd be interested in taking a look at reviving the Fairness Doctrine.

Predictably, it's emerging now with a right-wing frame:

"Dems target right-wing radio":

More and more Democrats in Congress are calling for action that Republicans warn could muzzle right-wing talk radio.

Representative Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York is the latest to say he wants to bring back the "Fairness Doctrine," a federal regulation scrapped in 1987 that would require broadcasters to present opposing views on public issues.

"I think the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," Hinchey told CNNRadio. Hinchey says he could make it part of a bill he plans to introduce later this year overhauling radio and t-v ownership laws.

What Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been telling their audiences is that any talk about the Fairness Doctrine is actually about trying to "silence" them. But of course, no one's interested in "silencing" anyone on the right: all we're talking about is creating a level playing field on the public airwaves so that a broad range of viewpoints can be heard instead of just one narrow bandwidth of ideology. This notion, naturally, is what they fear most, since their ideas don't compete well outside the vacuum they've created.

Frankly, even though at one time I was a full advocate of simply reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine, I no longer believe that's the wisest course. For one thing, the Doctrine didn't actually achieve what it was supposed to do, which was making for a rounded and robust political conversation; mostly it stifled it, in large part because it didn't address the structural defects involved.

The core problem is ownership: Radio station ownership in the past twenty years has been decidedly conservative. And anyone who's worked in media can tell you that ownership sets the tone and direction of what you do. After the Fairness Doctrine was removed, these wealthy right-wing owners effectively proved right one of the fears that drove the creation of the Fairness Doctrine in the first place: That the wealthy can and will dominate the political conversation on the public airwaves by simply buying up all the available space. Since the wealthy in this country are overwhelmingly conservative, the end result was not only predictable, it was in fact predicted.

Liberal radio has withered on the vine not for the lack of demand, but for the lack of ownership dedicated to nurturing talent, promoting the product, and creating local outlets as well as national markets. Still, one of the right's favorite myths about the Fairness Doctrine has been that these stations failed because no one wanted to listen, as in this Fox report (video above):

But Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe said radio programming should be based on what brings in listeners and advertisers.

"I can't think of anything worse than to have government in a position to dictate the content of information going over public radio," said Inhofe, a Republican. "The whole idea is that it has to be market driven. We have a lot of progressive or liberal radio shows but nobody listens to them and every time one tries to get on, they are not successful."

On the contrary, as Bill Press observes:

Unfortunately, what's happening in Washington reflects what has happened in one city after another across the country. In Miami, Clear Channel recently dumped progressive talk for sports: Clear Channel stations made the same move in San Diego and Cincinnati. Sacramento abandoned progressive talk for gospel music. In fact, according to a study released by the Center for American Progress and Free Press, there are nine hours of conservative talk for every one hour of progressive talk.

In fact, the only reason there's not more competition on American airwaves is that the handful of companies that own most radio stations do everything they can to block it. In many markets -- witness Philadelphia, Boston, Providence and Houston -- they join in providing no outlet for progressive talk. In others, as in Washington, they limit it to a weak signal, spend zero dollars on promotion and soon pull the plug.

Companies are given a license to operate public airwaves -- free! -- in order to make a profit, yes, but also, according to the terms of their FCC license, "to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance." Stations are not operating in the public interest when they offer only conservative talk.

For years, the Fairness Doctrine prevented such abuse by requiring licensed stations to carry a mix of opinion. However, under pressure from conservatives, President Ronald Reagan's Federal Communications Commission canceled the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, insisting that in a free market, stations would automatically offer a balance in programming.

That experiment has failed. There is no free market in talk radio today, only an exclusive, tightly held, conservative media conspiracy. The few holders of broadcast licenses have made it clear they will not, on their own, serve the general public. Maybe it's time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine -- and bring competition back to talk radio in Washington and elsewhere.

Rather than bring back the Fairness Doctrine, though, it might be better simply to reform the structure of how FCC licenses are distributed and make diversity of ownership a priority. That was the conclusion of a 2007 report from ThinkProgress that took a hard look at the issue and concluded that serious reform indeed was needed -- but that the Fairness Doctrine was not the way to go:

Along with other ideas, the report recommends that national radio ownership not be allowed to exceed 5 percent of the total number of AM and FM broadcast stations, and local ownership should not exceed more than 10 percent of the total commercial radio stations in a given market.

The full report [pdf file] is here.

We need to have robust, informed, and mature discussion about reforming radio and the use of the public airwaves. Unfortunately, because of the wingnuttery of the right, that's been all but impossible.

Perhaps we can start by framing this not as an attack on right-wing radio but on creating a level ideological playing field -- not driving out the right, but ending the dominance of right-wing wealth. When it comes to the public airwaves, the people with the most money should not have all the megaphones.

About David Neiwert

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