Good move on `fairness'

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AT first blush, opposition to the so-called ``fairness doctrine'' seems like a public-relations nightmare. How can anyone, especially an elected politician, oppose ``fairness''? Rather easily, it would appear. President Reagan has vetoed a bill that would write into law an existing federal policy known as the ``fairness doctrine'' - which requires broadcasters to present divergent views on controversial topics. The Senate leadership has wisely dropped plans to mount a veto-override campaign.

We support the President's veto.

Broadcast journalists, like their print counterparts, ought to present divergent views on controversial subjects. But for the government to require that broadcasters do so infringes on their rights of free speech - an infringement that newspapers would not countenance.

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The American Society of Newspaper Editors opposed the fairness-doctrine bill, calling for full First Amendment rights for broadcasters as well as newspapers.

The doctrine's original rationale was that although there is no theoretical limit to the number of printing presses a city can have, there are, as a matter of physics, only so many broadcast frequencies available. The few broadcasters there could be, the reasoning went, must be required to be ``fair.'' Newspaper economics has changed radically, however. Once, a major city could support several general dailies; but how many American cities today have even two papers?

In broadcasting, meanwhile, cable television channels have proliferated like mushrooms in a damp cellar - how many subscribers can intelligently explain all the programs that come in via the magic box perched atop the television set? And local radio news operations, even in small towns, compete not only with the venerable Daily Blade but with one another.

So although the basic physics of broadcasting haven't changed, other factors have, and the fairness doctrine is less relevant. ``Bias'' on television has generally less to do with ideology than with the technical constraints of a medium that is visual rather than verbal, and with the constraints of corporate ownership.

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