If you've been hanging out in a cave recently - something I've found to be the best way to deal with this election - you might not have been paying much attention to the threat of the Fairness Doctrine in political speech. The Fairness Doctrine is a nice-sounding name for government control of broadcast speech through the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC). It began in 1949 but really become a factor in the 1960s when it was used routinely for political aims. It put radio stations at risk when they addressed political issues. Many resorted to watering down their content or going through the motions of having "equal time" for opposing views. In general, there was a chilling effect on speech. Only after 1985, when it was repealed under the Reagan Administration, did radio broadcasters dare to regularly broadcast politically-oriented talk-shows, and in that free market, conservative talk-shows have dominated. Some folks would like to fix all this unbalanced free speech by getting us back to the Fairness Doctrine. The risk, I'm afraid, is not only bringing a one-sided "fairness" to talk radio (i.e., to shut up annoying or dangerous voices), but perhaps to extend control to the Internet as well (via "network neutrality" or other tools). Talk radio is certainly the target, if you've listened to the politicians calling for the Fairness Doctrine. They aren't complaining about lack of fairness in newspapers or on TV, from what I've heard.
A little history might be helpful here. Thomas W. Hazlett and David W. Sosa of the CATO Institute have a 1997 paper, "Chilling the Internet: Lessons from FCC Regulation of Radio Broadcast." They review the effect of the Fairness Doctrine to shut down conservative opposition. Here's an excerpt:
In 1962 President Kennedy's policies were under sustained attack from conservative broadcasters across the country. Of particular concern to the president were vocal right-wing opponents of the nuclear test ban treaty being considered by the Senate at the time. The administration and the DNC seized upon the Fairness Doctrine as a way to "counter the radical right" in their battle to pass the treaty. The Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was established and funded by the Democrats, orchestrated a very effective protest campaign against hostile radio editorials, demanding free reply time under the Fairness Doctrine whenever a conservative broadcaster denounced the treaty. Ultimately, the Senate ratified the treaty by far more than the necessary two-thirds majority.Brace yourself for fairness, and order your CTW rings today! (Now in two flavors for added balance: "Choose the Wrong" and "Choose the Wicked.")
Flush with success, the DNC and the Kennedy-Johnson administration decided to extend use of the doctrine to other high-priority legislation and the impending 1964 elections. Democratic Party funding sources were used to establish a professional listening post to monitor right-wing radio. The DNC also prepared a kit explaining "how to demand time under the Fairness Doctrine," which was handed out at conferences. As Bill Ruder, an assistant secretary of commerce under President Kennedy, noted, "Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters in the hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue."
By November 1964, when Johnson beat Goldwater in a landslide, the Democrats' "fairness" campaign was considered a stunning success. The effort had produced 1,035 letters to stations, resulting in 1,678 hours of free airtime. Critical to the campaign was the fact that much of the partisan commentary came from small, rural stations. In a confidential report to the DNC, Martin Firestone, a Washington attorney and former FCC staffer, explained,
"The right-wingers operate on a strictly cash basis and it is for this reason that they are carried by so many small stations. Were our efforts to be continued on a year-round basis, we would find that many of these stations would consider the broadcasts of these programs bothersome and burdensome (especially if they are ultimately required to give us free time) and would start dropping the programs from their broadcast schedule."
Update - clarifying material from my response to some comments:
Are concerns about the Fairness Doctrine unfounded paranoia? I hope so, but there's been fresh talk in Washington by Pelosi et al. about the need to bring it back. Shouldn't that at least raise an eyebrow?
That slurping sound in Washington is not just coming from Paulson's 700 billion slush fund sloshing in a few pockets - it's also coming from the salivation of politicians looking forward to further expanding their power. Does it take a delusional imagination to think that what already happened in the past couldn't happen again when the Fairness Doctrine is revived?
These kind of concerns aren't just tied to Obama, who actually said he opposes reinstating the doctrine (well, for now anyway). McCain, on the other hand, has done much more to threaten the future of free speech, in my opinion, through McCain-Feingold, which could be used much more actively in the future than it is today. Don't think I'm looking to him to save the eroding Constitution. This is not about Democrats vs. Republicans (or, more properly, Money Party A vs. Money Party B).
Net Neutrality is another nice-sounding concept, but it carries the sting of expansive regulation. Anyone who hasn't noticed how regulations expand in scope in the hands of those with an agenda hasn't been watching Washington for the past few decades.
The idea that Net Neutrality could join with Fairness to create a monster of Internet content regulation is controversial, but when an FCC Commissioner raises this as a possibility, it's not necessarily completely groundless. For those of you who have missed the news, here's a summary from a note in Wikipedia's article on the Fairness Doctrine:
On August 12, 2008, FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell stated that the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine could be intertwined with the debate over network neutrality (a proposal to classify network operators as common carriers required to admit all Internet services, applications and devices on equal terms), presenting a potential danger that net neutrality and Fairness Doctrine advocates could try to expand content controls to the Internet. It could also include "government dictating content policy".Hope he's wrong! Hope I'm wrong, too! Now that's the kind of hope this country needs.