Thursday, June 12, 2008

Talk Radio, Fairness, and the Common Good

One of the moderate paranoias of the conservative movement is that a Democratic Congress will restore "the Fairness Doctrine" in relation to conservative talk radio.

And I'm actually sympathetic to them on this issue.

So what's the Fairness Doctrine?
The policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission that became known as the "Fairness Doctrine" is an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair. The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues.
The fairness doctine was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1969 but was abandoned during the deregulation frenzy of the Reagan years. Talk radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Tammy Bruce have been panicking for years about the idea of Democrats re-establishing the Fairness Doctrine. Given that non-stop advocacy of right-wing positions is the raison de etre of conservative talk radio, enforcing the Fairness Doctrine would mean the end of talk radio as it's currently known. Dick Durbin, John Kerry, and a few other Democrats have talked about reviving the doctrine, but the initiative right now is with conservative attempts to pass legislation to ban the Fairness Doctrine altogether. According to

Several high-profile conservatives gathered on Capitol Hill to rally support for the Broadcaster Freedom Act, a measure to block the government from any future
attempts to chill political speech on the airwaves.

Specifically, the legislation would kill the Fairness Doctrine, an old Federal Communications Commission policy to require broadcasters must provide equal time to both sides of a debate. Although abolished in 1987, several congressional Democrats have recently expressed interest in renewing the Fairness Doctrine.

It's important to emphasize that I see no real point in conservative initiatives to ban the Fairness Doctrine. Given that the Fairness Doctrine has not been a policy of the FCC for twenty years, there is nothing to ban. There is no FCC monitoring, no mechanism to file complaints about "unfairness" and no mechanism to enforce "fairness." The right seems to be worried about Congressional efforts to override the FCC and the Courts. But a more liberal Congress could also act to override the act that conservatives are now trying to pass.

But I'm also sympathetic to the position of the right on the substance of the Fairness Doctrine.

The bottom line from my point of view is the rise of the right-wing media has been good for the country. Before the late 1970's, there was relative little outlet for popular conservatism in the national media which meant that the right-wing was left to stew on its own as a set of discourses and opinions that was "split-off" from the rest of American society.

This was a dangerous thing.

The United States has a relatively large conservative population for an advanced industrial country and the nation wasn't going to progress as long as people of right-wing disposition were left alone with their military fantasies, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and religious fundamentalism.

What talk-radio accomplished was to bring the right-wing into the mainstream. This meant that the right-wing was able to generate more pressure to push the Republican Party in a more conservative direction, develop more aggressive military policies, seek to dismantle social security and Medicare, fight environmental legislation, and restrict abortion rights.

But that's democracy and people on the right are exercising a much citizenship now than they were in the 60's and 70's.

And that's a good thing because the public emergence of the right-wing has meant that conservative views are now subject to contestation. When broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh come out with racist material like "Barack the Magic Negro," they've been subject to a great deal of examination and criticism from the left. More specifically, they've been forced to debate the relative merit of their racial and homophobic stereotyes and innuendo and ultimately to temper themselves, backtrack, and occasionally apologize. Despite their worst intentions, the right-wing media has responded to broader social intolerance of racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. by acknowledging the illegitimacy of these kinds of social bigotries.

This is not to say that the right isn't still racist, misogynist, and homophobic. But the fact that people like Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, the gang at Protein Wisdom, and others have had to testify to the appropriateness of civil rights ideals, deny and equivocate their social bigotries, and come up with non-bigoted rationales for conservative social initiatives has had a significant effect in bringing conservatives and conservative-leaning people into the American mainstream.

In other words, one of the "unintended consequences" of conservative talk radio has been their contribution to the liberalizing of American society.

Consequently, the Democrats should give up any effort to re-establish the Fairness Doctrine. The rise of conservative talk radio has ultimately been a real benefit to American society.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on conservative radio. I listen to it a lot, and it helps me works through my thoughts on various issues--as a liberal thinker, not a conservative. Conservative radio is like Red Bull for the activists on the left!

I've never been a fan of the Fairness Doctrine. Even though highly influential, media outlets should be allowed to preach a biased message. That's a democratic thing to permit in our country, right?

Michael said...

As long as you aren't letting anything as silly as the First Amendment influence your thinking.