The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – currently no longer applicable – that required television stations to deal with issues in a fair and balanced way, and to present contrasting viewpoints and give them all some air time (but not necessarily equal air time). The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine.
The FCC, when headed by Reagan appointees, abolished the policy because
the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of [the Fairness Doctrine] restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters
and hence “chills speech” and violates the First Amendment. In order to avoid to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every story, some journalists will supposedly refrain from covering some stories. Hence you have a de facto, not de jure, limit on free speech resulting from self-censorship.
Another reason given for abolishing the doctrine was that the “scarcity argument” is no longer valid. In the old days, when the number of media outlets was limited, the public couldn’t go elsewhere to find other viewpoints, and the Fairness Doctrine could be justified. Today, however, with the internet, blogosphere, cable and satellite television, this is no longer the case. If anything, there’s too much punditry.
There’s some truth in all of this, but still I think there are good reasons for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.
- First of all, the claim that it limits free speech is somewhat awkward. How can a rule that multiplies the number of views and arguments that are represented in the media, be called a limit on the freedom of speech? If journalists will not cover a topic in order to avoid having to go and find opposing views, than this is either because there are no opposing views (if there are, they will quickly assert themselves) or because the journalists are lazy. After all, why do we have Google?
- Secondly, there’s public support for the Fairness Doctrine. A recent poll by Scott Rasmussen asked whether the government should require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of liberal and conservative political commentary. 47 percent said “yes”, 39 percent were opposed.
- Thirdly, the scarcity argument is still valid, albeit in another way. Sophisticated audiences, tech savvy, with knowledge of where to find information and enough spare time to do so, will not benefit from a reinstated Fairness Doctrine. They will make sure that they get their balanced information from different sources if one source isn’t balanced. But other people will benefit, in particular those who rely on one or a few media-outlets for their information. Some of these people may be burdened by low levels of education and poverty, and hence are especially vulnerable to the effects of one-sided reporting.
- And finally, it is common knowledge that the quality of public debate and information in the U.S. is not what it could be. What we hear and see on television, radio and the internet is often no more than shrill partisan shouting. The issues are oversimplified, nuances get lost, sound bites rule, and much of the time the really important issues are pushed back by sensational trivia or personal attacks. A requirement to air opposing views would temper this and would improve the quality of political debate.
There’s a great clip of Jon Stewart appearing on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 and denouncing the current state of political debate (the program was dumped by CNN following Stewart’s criticism). Check it out on Youtube here; it’s worth your time if you haven’t seen it yet. Here’s a transcript:
TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Less than three weeks before the election [of 2004, FS], we’re going to take a break from campaign politics, sort of. Joining us will be Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and co-author of a new best-seller entitled “America (The Book).”
PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: We will spend the next half-hour with the most trusted man in fake news. As both of our loyal viewers, of course, know, our show is about all left vs. white, black vs. white, paper vs. plastic, Red Sox against the Yankees. That’s why every day, we have two guests with their own unique perspective on the news. But today, CROSSFIRE is very difficult. We have just one guest.
JON STEWART: Thank you. Can I say something very quickly? Why do we have to fight? … I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad.
BEGALA: We have noticed.
STEWART: And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you that I don’t — it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America. … So I wanted to come here today and say… Here’s just what I wanted to tell you guys.
STEWART: Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America. … See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.
BEGALA: By beating up on them? You just said we’re too rough on them when they make mistakes.
STEWART: No, no, no, you’re not too rough on them. You’re part of their strategies. You are partisan, what do you call it, hacks. … You’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great. … It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery. … You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.
CARLSON: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.
STEWART: You need to go to one. …
Democracy rests on opinions: opinions of candidates on policies, opinions of the people on candidates and policies, opinions on proposed policies and on executed policies. It’s therefore of the utmost importance that these opinions have some kind of value and aren’t knee-jerk impulses, prejudices, intuitions based on personal attacks, etc. Only well-considered opinions are good opinions and well-considered opinions are those that are tested in discussion and that survive as many counter-arguments as possible (see here).
Clearly, the media have a responsibility in this respect and have to present the struggle between arguments. They shouldn’t just be the mouthpiece of one side of the argument. They are indeed the “fourth estate” and are necessary for the functioning of a democracy.
We shouldn’t forget that opinions are not readily available. They are the result of thinking, studying, deliberation and discussion. If we want the people to have opinions, and preferably well-considered opinions, then we have to create frameworks for debate. We shouldn’t allow democratic elections – or even opinion polls and referenda – to be a simple system for tapping opinions that aren’t based on debate, or that often don’t even exist as opinions when they have to be tapped.
More on the media here.