Monday, January 22, 2007

In All Fairness

Of all the items left on the Democratic agenda, this effort to restore the "fairness doctrine" to the airwaves overseen by the FCC is probably the one that surprises me the most and gets me the most excited.

The fairness doctrine was an evenhanded approach to radio and then television broadcasting, one that had governed our airwaves almost since the dawn of those two media. Even though it had been around for fifty years and withstood challenges all the way up to the Supreme Court, President Reagan's FCC appointees killed it unceremoniously in 1987 and then Reagan vetoed a congressional effort to restore it. As a result, we've been treated to a system in which you can only get your political views aired as long as you're a giant corporation able to purchase a radio station or television network, or a like-minded individual.

Again, I think it's a terrific idea and I hope other congressmen join Rep. Hinchey and Sen. Sanders in pushing it. It would help restore sanity to our national media and, almost as sweet, make Rush Limbaugh go into convulsions he hasn't seen since the last time the maid was late with his hillbilly heroin.

12 comments:

Tokyo Joe said...

I actually have some reservations about this one. While I think the break up of the media monopolies is awesome and long over due, I'm not so key on the idea of forcing radio/TV to balance out their formats. I heard Ed Schultz talking about this the other day and it just seemed to smack a little too much of government interfering in free market. If a particular market is extremely right or left minded, should a radio station be forced to spend half of their talk radio time on something that 90% of their listeners don't like?

And if this does go through, can we expect to see a balance in media on prime time television as well? Should "Boston Legal" and "Studio 60" be forced to play to the neo-cons for half the season?

Personally the bill that I really want to see is the one that abolishes the FCC completely.

S.W. Anderson said...

"I heard Ed Schultz talking about this the other day and it just seemed to smack a little too much of government interfering in free market."

That's exactly what it is, TJ. The whole idea is that the airwaves belong to the public, not to the media giants and the megacorporations that own them. The current lopsidedness in talk radio doesn't serve the public interest, although in some markts it serves the public's taste.

Serving the public interest means airing a broad variety of views and opinions, and being prepared to allow equal time for dissenting views.

There are many ways of doing this. In some markets, for example a radio station that airs one right-wing squawker after another might be able to point to a competing station that airs one left-wing talker after another, and claim balance is there for the community's listeners.

BTW, the free market is a tool, like a gun or a hammer. Operated properly it can do great things. Operated badly, it can cause tremendous damage, pain and even kill.

We haven't had a truly free market in this country in more than a century and never will. Too many people object to crack dealers working across the street from junior highs and such.

Tokyo Joe said...

SW, I see what you are saying and agree that the Mega Corps are ruining the air waves (this is even more true in music radio than talk radio), and that's why the monopolies have to go as soon as possible.

But when you start talking about public interest vs public taste, then it starts to cost someone money and that's what I can't agree with. You mention a right radio station pointing to another one in town that's left. That's fine, but one of Big Ed's standard gripes is that his stations don't have the same power and thus don't reach the same numbers. So how do we make that fair? Force the more powerful broadcaster to split their time despite local preferences?

What about religious radio stations? Whenever I drive in the South I always hear 3-4 different Christian stations, but have yet to come across a good Shinto/Buddhist station. Wouldn't the public interest also be served by airing a broad range of religious shows?

Now if we are talking about a govt ran radio station then I surely believe that it should have a balanced blend of content regardless of public taste. a good example of this is Armed Forces Network (the radio and TV station that US bases overseas broadcast for their members). AFN radio has equal time for Ed Shultz and Rush Limbaugh. Being a govt operation, that seems fair to me.

The fact that Air America went off the air last year shows that left radio isn't marketable in some areas and to force people to play it (at a loss of revenue) is wrong. freedom of speech means that you can say whatever you want, not that somebody needs to build you a stage and platform so you can say it.

Otto Man said...

one of Big Ed's standard gripes is that his stations don't have the same power and thus don't reach the same numbers. So how do we make that fair? Force the more powerful broadcaster to split their time despite local preferences?

Despite SWA's suggestion, the fairness doctrine calls for political speech to be split on a single broadcast channel. Pointing to the competition doesn't get around it.

What about religious radio stations?

That doesn't apply here at all. The FD only applies to political speech. Religious broadcasting is largely exempted, except when they get into specific endorsements of politicians or policies. An Old Testament treatise on how homosexuality is a sin doesn't require equal time for another faith's view.

Now if we are talking about a govt ran radio station then I surely believe that it should have a balanced blend of content regardless of public taste.

You're hitting at the basic concept behind this, TJ. There is a finite number of radio frequencies available for broadcast in an individual area. Without government regulation, as in the early days of broadcast radio, people simply sent their signals out on any, or many, frequencies, and the end result was that you couldn't hear much clearly or regularly.

So the government stepped in to regulate the airwaves, handing out licenses to this guy to broadcast on 91.1 FM and that guy to broadcast on 97.3 FM and so on. But because the government was dicing up a finite public resource among private hands, and thereby cutting down on the kinds of political views being moved across those airwaves, it instituted the fairness doctrine.

In other words, because the government has to be involved in picking and choosing who gets a license on behalf of the public, all AM/FM broadcasts and non-cable TV broadcasts are essentially "public" radio.

freedom of speech means that you can say whatever you want, not that somebody needs to build you a stage and platform so you can say it.

Agreed. If the subject here is Fox News on cable or Howard Stern on XM, then your metaphor fits. Those people are working on a broadcast medium that doesn't involve public space and finite number of channels. They've paid for that space and can do whatever they like.

But AM, FM and basic TV are wholly different. The companies that broadcast on those channels didn't build those "stages," they've used their financial and political connections to hog the mikes.

I recommend you read up on what radio was like in the first few years of its existence. It was precisely the kind of free market you seem to be dreaming of, and guess what? No one could make any money off it. Signals blurred over one another, you couldn't count on getting the same station one day to the next, and you never knew when the local coverage of the ballgame would get blurred out by your neighbor trying out his own "broadcast" on the same channel.

Without the FCC, radio (and television) would be unprofitable. They organize and regulate that space so broadcasters and listeners alike can enjoy the media, and all that was ever asked in return was that they live up to their duty as wardens of the public space by (1) doing a little children's/educational programming and (2) give equal access to both sides of an issue when politics come up.

Oh, an it's "grant equal time" -- if asked. They don't have to represent every possible opinion if no one local doesn't want it.

Mike said...

But AM, FM and basic TV are wholly different. The companies that broadcast on those channels didn't build those "stages," they've used their financial and political connections to hog the mikes.

That's a good point, OM. I tend to side with TJ on these sorts of issues, but that's a key distinction. Still not sure where I come down on this issue, but it's not the slam-dunk I thought.

Tokyo Joe said...

OM brings a lot of good insight and makes a lot of great points, but I'm still not completely sold on this. sure there is only a finite amount of frequencies, but there are usually a finite number of 50,000+ watt transmitters in any given area. Sure radio was the wild west in the beginning when anyone with a ten foot antenna would rival the local radio stations, but these days the transmitters in question are a bit more powerful and thus not nearly as plentiful.

And I get the idea that the radio stations are working with a limited resource and thus should be good citizens, but it's not like the government built their radio towers and pays their electric bill. A very imperfect analogy would be forcing farmers to grow crops that didn't earn them as much because a certain group likes them more.

But I think the thing that rubs me the most wrong about the whole thing is that it's the people who are in power who will benefit the most. Now that is usually the status quo, but with Air America going bankrupt just this year, it smacks of the dems forcing their free advertising (which is basicly what a lot of talk radio is - free campaigning for politicians) on broadcasters. If Air America was still around or even lasted a bit longer I might not feel the same way, but as it is, it just leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

Otto Man said...

Glad I've been a little persuasive here. Let's see if I can impose my will, um, opinion, on you all a little more.

these days the transmitters in question are a bit more powerful and thus not nearly as plentiful.

Which only means there's a greater need for government regulation, not less. If we leave it to the free market, you'd have Richard Mellon Scaife and George Soros battling it out with giant supertransmitters in Omaha and Lincoln. (Although, given the prevalence of right-wing multimillionaries willing to spend their money in this way, it'd be Soros against Scaife, Murdoch, Exxon Radio, etc. etc.)

And I get the idea that the radio stations are working with a limited resource and thus should be good citizens, but it's not like the government built their radio towers and pays their electric bill. A very imperfect analogy would be forcing farmers to grow crops that didn't earn them as much because a certain group likes them more.

It's a little different, though, since the steady diet of right-wing radio becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as people are led to build political appetites that only demand more of the same and confirmations of their presuppositions.

To continue the farmer metaphor, what we have now is an agribusiness giant like Archers Daniel Midland crushing their family farmer competition and flooding the market with non-nutritious junk that's habit-forming for those who eat it.

Libertarians love to talk about the free market, but this is the one arena on which liberals have always outpaced them, I think. There should be a free market of ideas -- air all angles in the media and let the listeners decide.

The current policy isn't one that lends itself to free speech. The right to speak on "public" airwaves today is quite expensive.

And again, no one's saying you can't say X or Y. It's merely if you advocate X on public airwaves, then you have to give time to the opposite of X.

And if a broadcaster doesn't like it? Simple. Go to cable or satellite radio and do whatever you want.

it smacks of the dems forcing their free advertising (which is basicly what a lot of talk radio is - free campaigning for politicians) on broadcasters.

The timing doesn't look great, I agree, but this is something that liberals have been pushing for since Reagan's men made their move.

Again, this is a system that served this country very well from the early 1930s through 1987, and I think the Reagan move should be seen as the aberration -- not what held true and worked well for five decades plus before that.

People wonder why politics have become so rancorous in the past two decades, on both sides. Well, maybe it's because we all live in our own echo chambers, only hearing what we already think and never having opposing views presently legitimately. (Legitimately, not Alan Colmes style.)

Having some common ground in our main broadcast systems would be a nice way to forge common ground in our politics as well.

Tokyo Joe said...

I understand the need for need for public service and the scarcity of frequencies, but this just reminds me too much of eminent domain and the recent Supreme Courts ruling on that. I think the idea that the govt is telling people what they have to play on their radio stations (even if it is just balancing out) is just too much govt intrusion. Add that to the fact that the ones pushing this are the ones who will get the biggest benefits (even more so since Air America went belly up) and it just doesn't sit well.

Aside from my personal belly rumblings about this, I wonder how something like this is going to be enforced. What happens when someone claims to be right or left, but actually is the other way? Are there now going to be radio accountant types who monitor the content of each show and then at the end of the year gives it a political rating/ (actually the Ombudsman for Stars & Stripes does this and shows that it is a fairly balanced in its op-ed).

S.W. Anderson said...

O.M., thanks for a really good rundown of early radio and the genesis of the FCC.

FWIW, I was winging it about a righty station pointing to a liberal counterpart — as a possible means of satisfying an equal-time requirement, and I should've framed it as such. Didn't mean to make it sound like it's something out of the FCA.

S.W. Anderson said...

TJ, I think I get why this seems so alien to you. You see what "the government" requires as something separate and apart from a key phrase long familiar to broadcasters: "the public interest."

Evidently in your thinking, the government is a separate entity with its own agenda and activities, with only a coincidental relationship to what people might need and/or want.

At any time, that case can be argued forcefully, no doubt about it. But idea behind what O.M. was describing and what in the past was in the law under which the FCC operates makes no such distinction. Quite the contrary, the seeks to positively serve the public.

The Federal Communications Act (I believe it was called) for many decades required broadcasters to operate "in the public interest."

Stations had to invite viewers (annually, as I recall) to submit comments that would be passed along to FCC auditors about whether the station was fulfilling its public-interest obligation. Station logs were reviewed by the FCC for evidence of public service.

Partly as a result, broadcasters, radio and TV alike, in my hometown and region devoted early morning, especially Sunday morning, time to public service announcements, programs produced by various federal agencies and educational institutions, and by outfits such as the American Red Cross, Sister Kinney Foundation, March of Dimes, and so on. They also allotted time to community groups and organizations, such as the school board and parks board.

At campaign time, it was understood if Joe Blow, Republican candidate for mayor (or whatever) came on for an interview, Blow's opponent(s) got an invitation to come on for an interview, or to make a statement of their views.

IMO, it was an extremely worthwhile requirement. I'm all for bringing it back.

S.W. Anderson said...

Re: Air America, which apparently is off the air where you are, TJ. It's on the air and doing tolerably well where I am and in many markets across the country.

Going into bankruptcy doesn't necessarily mean shut down and gone for good.

Tokyo Joe said...

SW, thanks for the insight and giving me something to think about and mull over. I'm still not 100% on board with this bill, but at least now I can see some of the merits.