Search This Site


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Fairness Doctrine & Prestin's Reasonable Objection

In an earlier post, I lamented the loss of the Fairness Doctrine. In the comments, Prestin raises a reasonable objection (I hope he does not mind that have decided to spawn a new post on this):
...I have an issue with your comment about the fairness doctrine. I do some work with the national association of broadcasters and I wanted to point out this editorial. It's basically about how some laws, although well intended, do more harm than good...

Prominent defender of freedom of speech, Supreme Court Justice Douglas thundered: "The Fairness Doctrine has no place in our First Amendment regime. It puts the head of the camel inside the tent and enables administration after administration to toy with TV or radio in order to serve its sordid or its benevolent ends."

I am very sympathetic to this argument, and it is a pretty solid one, viewed in the abstract. But I am moved by observation of what has occurred, and by what further investigation reveals about what has occurred.

The TV networks are public airwaves (none of this discussion involves cable) and, as such, are there to serve the public's need for accurate information. Now, while they are licensed by the public to networks, the licenses go to owners (corporations), and are supported fiscally by advertisers (also corporations, for the most part.) This puts a great deal of understandable pressure on the content which is aired. As we have seen (I allege), points of view which are in general unfriendly to profit are, at the very least, discouraged.

I view the Fairness Doctrine as pushback from the public to counter this pressure. Yes, it is a bit of legal tinkering, but strict constructionism of First Amendment purists in this area, I feel, have used this abstract argument to disingenuously defend against this reasonable pushback. As is apparent throughout our history, Constitutional interpretation is a messy business, and yes, they do get it wrong all too often. However, as a deconstructionist I am all too alert to the fact that original text never gets it right, and it sometimes behooves us to peer at that bugaboo of the right, "intent." I submit that the intent of our First Amendment was to allow all ideas to flow and float or sink on their merits. Due to the influence of corporate profit, the game is tilted, and the Fairness Doctrine is an attemp to right things.

It may very well be true that the original Fairness Doctrine was too draconian in this regard, and that is why I say that we should revisit it with the hindsight of what we have learned these last forty years, with and without it in play. Then perhaps something more palatable can be crafted.

And thank you, Prestin, for weighing in.


  1. I see your point Petro. It is best to approach issues with the hindsight we have gained.

    I think the NAB is trying to point out that in today's world, we have myriad of places where we can go to get news and information and the media is not as consolidated as one would think. The media landscape has changed dramatically just in the past year yet broadcasters must operate under decades old FCC regulations that hinder local TV stations' ability to compete for ad dollars. The Fairness Doctrine will only exacerbate the issue.


  2. Thank you, Prestin.

    I would counter that the motivation to compete for ad dollars does not serve the public, and that should be the intended purpose of publicly owned and licensed conduits. There are, as you pointed out, a "myriad of [media] places" are available to those who wish to chase profit, and I seek only to return the focus to public service, in that small area carved out for us.

    It is a shame that the ethic shifted towards competition when the alternate media began to appear. Once was the time when news gathering and reporting was expected to lose money. Perhaps you share the free-market philosophy that money is a pure expression of human relationship, commodifying and facilitating its transaction, but I think that has been shown to be a mistake.

    The only danger in the regulation of broadcasting that I will entertain as troublesome is that it is in danger of being a corporate mouthpiece-by-proxy in a country where there is an unacceptable influence on the levers of our government.

    That caveat aside, I would offer that the constant struggle for "branding" in media might actually be well-served by returning broadcasting's priorities to public service. Why, I might even turn on the TV again if I thought they were gonna get all Cronkite on me again...


I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.