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Fairness Doctrine and freedom of the press

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Quite a bit of talk has sprung up recently about the Fairness Doctrine. Some Democrats, like Louise Slaughter (D-NY) have worked quite extensively (Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is another supporter) to have the legislation reinstated, while many Republicans, suggest the doctrine is specifically targeted toward silencing, or at least, dulling influence from conservative-dominated talk radio.

The Fairness Doctrine, which seeks to mandate that broadcasters give opposing viewpoints to an issue (or have both conservative and liberal viewpoints represented by separate programs, etc etc), dates back to the mid-20th century when it was introduced and put into law and then added to the Federal Communications Commission regulations. In 1987, Congress tried to turn the regulations into law, and Reagan handed down a veto. It hasn’t been enforced by the FCC since. Now since Barack Obama was elected, word is that the Democrats will attempt to reinact such legislation.

In a December 2004 interview with Slaughter, Bill Moyers asked,

Is somebody going to say, “Is this just a question of a Democrat who feels she’s not getting her message out and she’s mad?”

SLAUGHTER: No. It isn’t. I mean I get reelected, I’ve done extremely well in my district because people appreciate that I fight for things. I think all Americans would feel the same way I do exactly if we just had the ability to tell them. Reinstating the fairness doctrine would make a major difference in this country.

Near the beginning of the interview, Slaughter said,

I was so committed to it (the doctrine) and I kept doing bills. Because the airwaves belong to the people. I think we’ve good and sufficient examples now of what has happened to us with media consolidation — the fact that the information coming to us is controlled, the fact that at least half the people in the United States have no voice because they’re not allowed in on talk radio.

Actually, the airwaves belong to whoever owns them. Perhaps in some metaphorical sense, airwaves are part of the public domain, but radio stations are not. They are privately owned and those owners can do with them as they like. It just so happens now that, apparently, conservative-minded individuals have a hold on talk radio at the moment.

One question Democrats will have to answer is the one Moyer raised: Aren’t Dems just trying to get some more elbow room in the media, particularly in radio? And this is a valid question. One can’t convince us that Dems have some unbending, irrevocable hunger for fairness that transcends party lines. That just isn’t believable because some who claim to be journalists don’t even possess that, which is unfortunate. But that’s for another article.

Obligating broadcasters, newspapers or cable news to use their mediums to present separate viewpoints sounds irresponsible to me and is tugging pretty hard, if not trampling, on the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Part of me says, “Yeah! Let’s make our media more balanced!” while another part can’t support anything, be it censorship, governmental stifling of thought or governmental addition of thought, that infringes on the press. I agree wholeheartedly that some in the press today (FOX News, most talk radio) have all but reverted back to the 19th century brand of journalism, when newspapers were nothing more than sounding boards to political parties. Others aren’t so brazen, however, offering liberal-only and conservative-only talk shows on their channels (Keith Olbermann, D.L. Hughley, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, to name a few) as seasoning to their 24/7 line up of what we are to believe is balanced coverage.

Be that as it may, even though some “journalists” and broadcasters have trampled on journalism itself, that doesn’t give the government the right to trample on it as well, in order to squash the tramplers at their own game. This goes back to a larger picture, which I’ve written about before, that one of the flaws in this country, from giant financial institutions (Wachovia, Merrill Lynch) to computer corporations (Microsoft), companies are allowed to grow and grow seemingly without checks. They thus expand to the point that their very non-existence could crumble our economic infrastructure. Thus it is with the media corporations, like Rupert Murdoch’s universe of FOX News, The Wall Street Journal, etc, etc. Give one person huge assets and a set of political ideologies, and in which direction will he attempt to take those assets? Of course, wherever his ideologies take him.

It is ironic that our oldest modern medium, radio, is today dominated by a party stuck in the past and grappling with how to modernize itself. While this seems wholly appropriate at this point, it’s not the job of the government to modernize talk radio, for that would be constitutional infringement. Nor is it the job of radio, TV or any other media to be the one and only source for people’s information. As Moyers said in his interview with Slaughter, residents have enumerable sources from which to get data. The informed person will seek out those enumerable sources, not being satisfied with just watching Hannity’s America or Keith Olbermann or listening to Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham. Those programs success speaks to the fact that Americans, at this point, aren’t willing or are too lazy or to stuck in their own entrenched ideologies to do that, and we have a long way to go in that regard.

So, how do we raise a new consciousness of self-learning, to teach people to seek out multiple viewpoints and multiple ways of looking at complex issues? Part of that obligation falls to the press. While some calling themselves part of the “press” fail miserably, others — I would start with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times — do a fine job of painting an accurate and fair picture of the American landscape. Most of that obligation is with teachers, professors and parents (and more so to the latter). This is where it must begin.

Yeah, this is funny

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… and chilling. “Sounds like the average day at the office for … Rupert Murdoch.”

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