Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy that the US's FCC (Federal Communications Commission) applied to radio stations that discussed politics. It was an attempt to force these discussions to be balanced, honest and equitable. This basically shut down discourse on the airwaves. It was introduced in 1949, made into actual policy in 1967 and eventually repealed completely in 1987. This explains the explosion of talk radio in my lifetime. Rush Limbaugh was the first talk radio personality to take advantage of it. I can't imagine having the country at war in Vietnam and not being able to talk about the issues on a call-in show. I don't particular care for the state of talk radio now in America but I do agree (even if I disagree with most of it) that they have a right to their opinions and to the airwaves.

The first problem with this doctrine is that it is very hard thing to enforce not only for the FCC but for the radio stations. What exactly does balanced and equitable mean? For example if you have a scientist on your show to talk about Evolution ... do you really have to have a Creationist on? Since Evolution is basically accepted as fact by most (if not all scientists) ... do you really have to have a non-scientist on and then give them equal time? If you were talking about the link between autism and immunization ... would you really have to show both sides of this issue even though there is no science to show that there is a link at all? Enforcing honesty has a similar problem because when someone has an opinion and you don't agree with it, this doesn't make them dishonest. There is no such thing as a dishonest opinion. Too much gray area prevents a small town radio station from policing themselves.

Enforcing such a policy made this very expensive (particularly with a call in show). Most small time radio stations avoided political discussions altogether. For every topic you had to have two people on and they had to have equal time. This was cost prohibitive and very unfair considering that their competition, print media, did not have to do so. That's right ... the Fairness Doctrine was unfair ... not the first government policy that was inappropriately named.

Some people want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine because of the current state of talk radio which is a lot more like hate radio than it is talk radio these days. I am not one of them but I understand their concerns. Whenever I hear someone like Rush or Michael Savage on the radio or some of the Fox personalities like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity on television, I think of Radio Rwanda. The media's role in spreading speech in the Rwandan Genocide is well known. In 1994 two radio stations and some newspapers started spreading hate speech and promoting violence against Tutsi by Hutu. The Tutsi were referred to as "cockroaches" for several years on these radio stations. Everyone ignored it until the violence started. One million dead bodies later ... we think maybe they should have been stopped.

As a liberal, I fear not only for my country and future, but for my own personal safety. I am only annoyed when they spread moronic lies, like Sarah Palin's Death Panels, but I am scared when I am being painted as unpatriotic or as an internal threat because I have a different opinion. People should be able to gather at a church or any other public place without fear of being gunned down (see Knoxville Shooting). Fear is their broadest tool and hate is what they create. The Fairness Doctrine seems like it was a bad thing but perhaps we need something that is a bit more fair in its place ... like a small dose of sanity and respect for one's neighbor.

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