Can media fairness be mandated?

Radio's sway on immigration urges calls for controls.

There is nothing inherently fair about media coverage in the early 21st century.

Anyone who watches TV news knows reporters can lock on to a particular angle when covering a story. On talk radio, hosts have their jobs precisely because they voice opinions on the issues of the day. And there are no guarantees that a story's two or three or six sides are given equal weight.

This is simply understood as the rules of big media today, but up until just 20 years ago things were quite different – by federal rule.

Back then, the Federal Communications Commission used something called the Fairness Doctrine, a set of rules designed to ensure broadcast outlets provided a reasonable opportunity for "ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views … [for all] issues of importance to the public." The thought behind the doctrine, which governed broadcast outlets from 1949 to 1987, was that the airwaves were public, in limited supply, and leased to private companies for use by the government. The rules were part of the broadcasters' public-service mission.

This August will mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the Fairness Doctrine. It was dismantled and eventually dumped during the Reagan Administration in part due to the rise of cable TV – which didn't use the airwaves and offered audiences more programming options.

Twenty years is a long time in the fast-changing media world. And there is suddenly talk in this town of reviving the Fairness Doctrine. Politics is driving the discussion.

Democrats have long complained that the conservative tone of talk radio (which took off when the Fairness Doctrine ended) distorts their positions and pushes political debate to the right. Some Democratic senators have discussed bringing the rules back.

And last week, the doctrine's revival got an extra boost when the unlikely duo of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi complained on Fox News that the one-way bias of talk radio against immigration reform was killing the measure and hurting the country. "Talk radio is running America," Senator Lott said in an earlier interview. "We have to deal with that problem." Senator Feinstein said she was "looking at" reviving the Fairness Doctrine.

It may be an uphill fight. The Democrats' dislike of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and some Republicans' unhappiness with the tone of the immigration debate in talk-land may not be enough to reregulate the airwaves.

But beyond the immediate politics, is there an argument for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine? There is without question an overwhelming rightward tilt to talk radio. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, reports that "91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative." And conservatives have argued that the struggles of the Air America radio network show liberals simply can't compete on the radio dial.

But are those nuggets arguments for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine or simply proof that talk radio is a largely conservative medium? Would it really sway opinions if Mr. Limbaugh or Mr. Hannity had to give equal time to Democrats, or if their shows were required to be followed by liberal programming?

More to the point, if there was a legitimate argument in 1987 that cable had significantly broadened the spectrum of opinions available to audiences, that argument must be even truer today – to the point where bringing "fairness" back to broadcast would certainly have less impact than it had 20 years ago. After all, couldn't Limbaugh, Hannity, and other conservatives simply switch to satellite radio or webcasting or podcasting to make their points free of interference?

Even now, you can listen to Hannity's podcast and read his website on your iPhone (if you have one), which can then be used to call your representative. And there will most surely be even more options available to those who want to spread their opinions in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the lines differentiating broadcast (public airwaves) outlets and other forms of news are blurring as telecasts become webcasts.

None of this is to say that talk radio does not have an important influence, precisely the complaints that Feinstein and Lott are lodging.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, where I work, has found that the immigration bill has been a huge topic on the air – one where negative comments vastly outweigh the positive ones.

There can be little doubt that all that radio chatter stirred audiences to call their representatives in Washington and voice their concerns.

But if members of Congress think bringing back the Fairness Doctrine in radio and TV will stop calls from coming in, they may soon find that different platforms would create the same kinds of pressures. And placing rules on those outlets may well run into a bigger obstacle – the First Amendment.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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