Liberals, too, should reject the Fairness Doctrine
Do we really want the government to be talk radio's nanny?
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But the Fairness Doctrine presented conservatives with a sweeping example of liberal media bias, a charge they have used to build and justify alternative conservative media. First articulated in 1949, the doctrine had a chilling effect on conservative opinion. No one – not the FCC, not Congress, not broadcasters – knew what the doctrine required other than that broadcasters ensure fairness.Skip to next paragraph
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But what did "fairness" mean? In many ways, the standard seemed to be the one a Supreme Court justice famously adopted toward pornography: FCC officials would know it when they saw it.
Rather than air controversial issues and risk license revocation if the FCC deemed the coverage unfair, many broadcasters simply steered clear of such material. This decision hit conservative broadcasters hard. In a political culture dominated by liberal consensus – the belief in the positive value of government action, containment of communism, and regulation of industry – conservatism was controversial in a way liberalism was not.
Take the case of Clarence Manion, whose conservative radio show ran from 1954 through 1979. In October 1957, Mr. Manion taped an interview with Herbert Kohler about an ongoing strike at Mr. Kohler's Wisconsin plant. The national radio network carrying Manion's program refused to air the broadcast. Too controversial, network executives said, claiming (incorrectly) that the network would have to give time for the union to respond.
The incident convinced Manion and his listeners that conservatives couldn't get a fair shake in established media outlets. Episodes such as these allowed conservatives to seize a populist platform, to decry censorship, and cement their perception of liberal media bias.
That bias argument is central to conservative media: If established media are intractably liberal, then balance demands the existence of alternative right-wing media. Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine resurrects these issues without any prospect of achieving balance in radio broadcasting. Attempts to limit conservative broadcasting would meet instant legal challenges. No court would uphold the doctrine in its earlier ambiguous form, which survived so long only because it faced few legal challenges.
Moreover, liberals would do well to consider the implications of government regulation of on-air content. Do we really want government monitoring broadcasts, weighing their politics, and pushing program remedies? The doctrine died in the 1980s because it was seen as a muzzle on controversial broadcasting. It would do well to stay dead.