16 January 2009

Suppression of Speech

From our local paper, a letter to the editor:

Reagan eliminated fairness on the airwaves, allowing discrimination against progressive viewpoints, so we also need a program of affirmative action redressing past wrongs by requiring fairness from all broadcasters, but requiring more fairness from some. We should exempt stations carrying progressive programming like Air America affiliates and community radio stations across the country from the revived Fairness Doctrine.

Maybe this as a win for conservatives. Since the television networks are filled with shows that promote all sorts of sexual promiscuity ... they should now have to give 50% of time to more wholesome fare. Ditto for the sexually charged popular music on the airwaves and on satellite radio. In fact, in keeping with Bruce's call to redress past wrongs, I think that advocates of traditional values should simply have carte blanche to control what comes across the cable that run over and under our public streets for the next three to five years.

Or Not.

Let's be clear about the fairness doctrine and what it was. It

required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was (in the Commission's view) honest, equitable, and balanced.

The Equal Time requirement covers political candidates, not controversial issues.

I do not think that a Fairness Doctrine would stand up in court today, for a very simple reason. In 1974, the SCOTUS held, in Miami Herald v Tornillo, that if you wanted balance in the newspaper market, start your own. This seemed a turnaround from 1969's Red Lion Broadcasting v the FCC , where the court upheld the right of the FCC to impose the fairness doctrine. "Because of the scarcity of radio frequencies, the Government is permitted to put restraints on licensees in favor of others whose views should be expressed on this unique medium."

Given the explosion of media, including the internet, digital radio (which makes more channels available) cable tv and satellite radio and tv, I do not believe that the situation the court faced in 1969 is anywhere close to the one we live in now.

Finally, the attempt to resurrect the fairness doctrine is really about shutting down right-wing talk radio. Really.

If you doubt that, check out the last seven paragraphs
here. Steve Rendall hosts a radio show which claims to have been "challenging media bias and censorship since 1986." It is heard on 130 stations. (If you go to Limbaugh's website, and start counting stations, you get to 130 in the states whose names begin in A-G! Is jealosy at work here?) Apparently Rendall is not interested in challenging media censorship which disagrees with him, even if it is ineffectual. He writes:

When Edward Monks, a lawyer in Eugene, Oregon, studied the two commercial talk stations in his town (Eugene Register-Guard, 6/30/02), he found “80 hours per week, more than 4,000 hours per year, programmed for Republican and conservative talk shows, without a single second programmed for a Democratic or liberal perspective.” Observing that Eugene (a generally progressive town) was “fairly representative,” Monks concluded: “Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society. There is nothing fair, balanced or democratic about it.”

So the talk radio is uniformly conservative, yet the town remains generally progressive, he says. So the conservative talk show format of the local radio has had no effect on the town's political makeup; it just irritates him. That's tolerant. Rendall continues:

What has not changed since 1987 is that over-the-air broadcasting remains the most powerful force affecting public opinion, especially on local issues; as public trustees, broadcasters ought to be insuring that they inform the public, not inflame them.

Rendall offers no evidence that conservative talk radio only "inflames," not "informs" the public. (Perhaps he sees this as self-evident. Perhaps he also does not understand how inflamatory it is to scare people about talk radio by invoking phrases like
"a totalitarian society.")

Justice White wrote in the Red Lion case,

... if experience with the administration of these doctrines indicates that they have the net effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, the volume and quality of coverage, there will be time enough to reconsider the constitutional implications.

So, if Justice White is to be believed, any law or policy that seeks merely to shut down a particular kind of political speech (which could be done by making a station carrying, say Michael Medved, to also carry Air America programming to the dismay of its bottom line) would be unconstitutional.

I hope.

1 comment:

Maggie M. Thornton said...

Good overview. I hope the details finally make an impression on the public.

Maggie @ Maggie's Notebook