The Fairness Doctrine at Work

While some Democrats push to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, an example of the harmful effects of doing so has played out in the most unlikely of places--the Aspen airport.

For those not familiar with the Fairness Doctrine, it was a Federal Communications Commission policy that required radio and TV stations to, in effect, provide equal time on matters of public importance. A station which did not do so ran the risk of losing its broadcast license, something which Rupert Murdoch once famously compared to having a license to print money.

The Fairness Doctrine was originally intended to encourage a public dialogue on controversial issues by ensuring that both sides of a topic were aired. As a former radio and TV journalist, I can assure you that the opposite was true. Station owners were afraid that their licenses would be yanked if there was the slightest possibility that they could be accused of violating the doctrine; it was far safer to simply avoid controversial matters.

That, and its questionable constitutionality, caused the Reagan-era F.C.C. to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. Within months, Rush Limbaugh's program was nationally syndicated, and radio programming has never been the same. Many industry observers credit Rush with single-handedly saving the AM band, one reason he has achieved cult-like status among broadcasters. 

Liberals often seemed perplexed by the success of conservatives in talk radio and the abject failure of liberal talk radio (see Air America, Jim Hightower, Ed Schultz, etc.), another example of how their belief in government regulation blinds them to the way the free market operates. It's the law of supply and demand. Liberals have long had multiple media outlets to turn to: government-supported PBS and NPR, the broadcast networks, the newsweeklies, the Times and the Post, and the rest of the legacy media. 

Conservative talk radio has been successful, i.e. profitable--and liberal talk radio has not--because of the most basic of reasons: it supplied a market demand that was otherwise unmet. Listeners turn to conservative talk shows to meet that need. Listeners mean ratings. Ratings mean advertising revenues.

The success of Rush and other conservative talk radio hosts, and the failure of liberals to achieve similar success, is the underlying motivation behind Democrats' efforts to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine. Among those who have spoken up for the position are Senators John Kerry and Dick Durbin  and Representatives John Dingell, Dennis Kucinich, and Louise Slaughter.  

According to Accuracy In Media Editor Cliff Kincaid, with Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress, a Democratic-appointed F.C.C. could easily re-impose the Fairness Doctrine. "This may be what is planned," he told the Cybercast News Service .

Their stated goal: to require every radio station that airs Rush, or any other conservative host, to air an equal, and similarly day-parted, amount of time for a liberal to espouse their views.

Which brings us back to the Aspen airport. (Not a bad idea with summer temps rising.)

The Pitkin County airport features various celebs reading those ubiquitous airport announcements visitors and reciting various safety-related provisos.  (You know, please remove your belt, your shoes, your remaining dignity, etc.) Among those reading the announcements was John McCain. spokeswoman Bingham told the Los Angeles Times, "I was at a party, and he was there," she said. "And I thought, 'Oh, cool a senator.' It had nothing to do with my political feelings."

That was a year ago. Recently, according to Bingham and the Times:

"We had one complaint from a guy, who thought maybe it would tip the scale of the election or something."

True, Colorado is considered a likely swing state in the general election. But would McCain's warning that the federal regulations restrict certain items from being carried aboard airplanes sway many votes?

Regardless, said Bingham, "We didn't want to offend anyone." So the McCain recording got mothballed.

She ruefully added: "Had I been forward thinking, I should have gotten Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to do one. Then it would have been equal time."

In short, the Aspen airport scenario played out on a small scale exactly as re-imposition of the Fairness Doctrine would play out on a national level. 

Forced to provide equal time to liberal hosts -- an enterprise that has proved financially inviable time after time -- broadcasters would soon have to increase the advertising rates for conservative programs to compensate for the liberal shows drain in ratings and advertising or to pull the plug on both, silencing some of the most prominent and influential voices on the right.

But then, maybe that's what the Democrats supporting the Fairness Doctrine are really after.

Wm Tate is the author of the novel A Time Like This, which examines these issues.
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