Save Us from Fox News, FCC!

by on January 17, 2007 · 12 comments

Over at Techdirt, Carlo nails Dennis Kucinich’s proposal to bring back the so-called fairness doctrine:

One of the earliest lessons a lot of kids learn (though don’t necessarily accept) is that life isn’t fair, if for no other reason than what they think is fair is often wildly different than what their parents do. Now, once-failed and now long-shot presidential candidiate Dennis Kucinich says he’ll be heading up a new House subcommittee on issues around the FCC, that he might try to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was an FCC rule, in force until 1987, that said broadcasters had a responsibility to discuss controversial issues of public importance, and to do so in a balanced manner that addressed differing points of view. While the goal of the doctrine might sound nice, the rule itself is a little troublesome, not least of which because it could be interpreted as violating the First Amendment (though the current FCC isn’t likely to care about that), but also because it holds broadcasters to a wholly subjective ideal. Who decides what’s fair? After all, one popular news network famously uses the tagline “fair and balanced”, when plenty of people feel it’s neither. The Fairness Doctrine also makes less and less sense in an age where the number of media outlets is proliferating. There’s no limit to the number of places that can provide news or opinion, and professionals and the public have more tools than ever at their disposal to tell their own stories and express their own viewpoints. To require certain media to provide an arbitrary level of “balance” makes less sense than encouraging people with disagreeing viewpoints to develop their own media outlets, whether it’s a blog, newsletter or even a cable TV channel. Kucinich says that “the media has become the servant of a very narrow corporate agenda”–but reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine would simply replace that corporate agenda with that of a political appointee, and that’s really not very fair.

It’s truly mind-boggling that someone could look at today’s media landscape, which is by almost any measure more diverse, vibrant, and competitive than at any point in the history of the world, and conclude that we need to turn back the clock to the 1970s, when a government bureaucrat sat in judgment of the “fairness” of each television outlet’s news and commentary.

It’s particularly irritating to see it come from the political left because if there’s one that the Bush administration has taught us about journalistic objectivity, it’s that a White House that’s willing to twist the truth can use the concept of “fairness” to browbeat journalists into putting its obfuscations on an equal footing with more credible observers. This just isn’t the sort of problem that a bureaucracy like the FCC can solve. It can only be solved by journalists who are willing to call a spade a spade, and opposition politicians who are willing to highlight their opponents’ dishonesty. Putting the FCC in charge of determining what’s “fair” is not only an affront to the First Amendment, but it’s not likely to work either.

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