Patrick & Hazlett on Fairness Doctrine

by on July 31, 2007 · 2 comments

Good piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Dennis Patrick (former FCC Chairman) and Thomas Hazlett (former FCC Chief Economist) on the Fairness Doctrine. In their editorial entitled, “The Return of the Speech Police,” they argue that the Doctrine represented “well-intended regulation gone wrong” and that “re-imposing ‘fairness’ regulation would be a colossal mistake.” The continue:

The Fairness Doctrine was bad public policy. It rested on the presumption that government regulators can coolly review editorial choices and, with the power to license (or not license) stations, improve the quantity and quality of broadcast news. Yet, as the volcanic eruption triggered by repeal amply demonstrated, government enforcement of “fairness” was extremely political.

Evaluations were hotly contested; each regulatory determination was loaded with implications for warring factions. The simple ceases to be easy once government is forced to issue blanket rules. What public issues are crucial to cover? How many contrasting views, and presented by whom, in what context, and for how long? The Fairness Doctrine brought a federal agency into the newsroom to second-guess a broadcaster’s editorial judgments at the behest of combatants rarely motivated by the ideal of “balanced” coverage.

Broadcasters learned to play with their heads down. A controversial news report or edgy editorial comment could generate requests for free time to present a contrasting view as balance. And if disgruntled complainants remained, challenges could be filed at the FCC. Loss of license is a death penalty for the broadcaster, and stations would spend heavily on lawyers, consultants and lobbyists to avoid this possibility.

Stations were incentivized to offer bland, uncontroversial news reports, retreating to a safe haven protected from Fairness Doctrine complaints. The true costs of the policy could thus be counted by the issues not covered, the controversies not engaged and the information not conveyed to the public.

While the Fairness Doctrine remained in place, numerous journalists (including CBS’s Dan Rather and NBC’s Bill Monroe) offered compelling testimony that editors steered reporters away from particular areas due to fear of “fairness” complaints. But this was conjecture — more systematic evidence of the doctrine’s social costs was difficult to gather.

Once the repeal placed radio and TV licensees under a new regime, however, these costs became possible to quantify. Elimination of the Fairness Doctrine unleashed torrents of informational programming. Once unregulated, controversy raged.

Read the entire piece.

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