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the fairness doctrine

February 17, 2009

Lately, I have been hearing a lot of discussion on liberal talk shows about the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal-time rule. I think that if the Democrats in Congress choose to try and re-institute either of these things, it will end up hurting their own cause. For one thing, no matter how good their intentions may be, it is a stupid idea.

Personally, I am not entirely happy with how our public airwaves are managed by the FCC, but if radio stations want to broadcast conservative talk shows because that is what brings in the listeners and advertising dollars, then forcing them to broadcast liberal talk shows will potentially cost those stations listeners and advertising dollars. This would obviously hurt those stations. In addition, pushing the Fairness Doctrine will backfire because Republicans will frame this as an attack on free speech. Even more so with the Equal-time rule. Public opinion generally sides with those who are perceived as defending free speech.

That being said, I can certainly understand how some people see this as a good idea in that these are supposed to be public airwaves and having the majority of corporate radio stations flooding the airwaves with only one political viewpoint regarding controversial issues is problematic for those who want their own opposing viewpoints to be heard.

Because liberal talk shows are not as profitable for radio stations in predominately conservative markets, their views are simply not heard, or even censored by conservative-leaning station owners. In theory, it sounds good to propose that a broadcaster’s coverage of controversial issues should be balanced and fair. Even so, I still do not think it is a good idea for a variety of other reasons.

One of the main reasons is that I want more than just conservative and liberal (i.e. Democratic and Republican) views to be expressed on our public airwaves regardless if they have the most money, or a wider audience, etc. I do not think that any one party or political ideology should dominate the public airwaves, but that can only be remedied by actually opening the public airwaves to the public. Barring that, profitability is the main factor in determining what programming will be available on stations in any given market.

In general, stations play whatever they think will bring in the highest ratings, which in turn will bring in the most advertising dollars. Forcing stations to give equal time to both will just cause friction, potentially reduce ratings and advertising dollars and eventually turn public opinion against whomever is responsible.

The way I see it, the most pragmatic solution for liberals who are concerned about gaining more airtime is to improve their shows and get better hosts. The better the shows and hosts, the more listeners will tune in to those shows. The more popular these shows and hosts become, the more stations will pick them up. I also think that there should be more impartial public service broadcasting-type stations and/or programming made available because no matter how popular these shows and hosts become, many stations in traditionally conservative markets will still not pick them up because their listeners are not interested in them, or their conservative station owners are biased against them, etc. The same holds true for traditionally liberal markets and station owners as well.

Nevertheless, I do think that the way the FCC regulates our public airwaves needs to be reviewed, especially in regard to media consolidation. As it stands, it is getting easier for a single company to dominate local media markets. In 2007, for example, the FCC voted to “relax its existing ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership” (FCC’s Review of the Broadcast Ownership Rules).

Instead of auctioning off our public airwaves, I would really like to see the airwaves, or at least a spectrum of them, open to the community, to see an explosion of local and community radio stations giving voice to the citizens and not just powerful corporate entities and and political parties. That is my idea of fair.


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