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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Fairness Doctrine Not the Path to Media Reform

Capital Times Editorial

We all know that the fierce partisans who currently control the Republican Party -- to the exclusion of its traditional base and the many responsible Americans who still hold out hope for a return to "party of Lincoln" values -- are not enthusiastic about fairness. That was pretty well defined over the past eight years.

Given control over all of the levers of federal power in Washington for most of the period, George Bush, Tom Delay, Paul Ryan and their compatriots used a combination of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation for the banks and credit card companies to dramatically expand the gap between rich and poor in a country where democracy demands at least a measure of starting-gate equality for all.

So the fact that every Republican in the Senate voted last week to tell the Federal Communications Commission not to restore the fairness doctrine came as no surprise. Republican-friendly talk radio hosts, desperate to keep the advantages afforded them by the current media system, imagined that a serious threat to their concession could be found in sincere proposals to resurrect the old FCC requirement (on the books from 1949 to 1987) that the holders of broadcast licenses address controversial issues of public importance in a manner that is broadly accepted as honest, equitable and balanced.

But why did so many savvy Democratic senators join the Republicans in backing the anti-fairness doctrine measure that passed the Senate on an 87-11 vote?

Specifically, why did Wisconsin Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, both of whom have displayed an awareness of the malaise of our overly consolidated, overly corporate and often dishonest, inequitable and unbalanced media, vote "no"?

The answer is that, for all the hemming and hawing of right-wing media zealots, the restoration of the fairness doctrine was never going to repair our broken media system.

The fairness doctrine was in place for decades. And much of the criticism of it came not from conservatives but from serious journalists, who felt that, instead of encouraging a deep discourse about issues of public importance -- especially those involving foreign policy and corporate power -- it actually tended to constrain debate. Over-cautious broadcasters, looking to avoid conflict, steered discussion away from topics that might stir public outcry and bring a rebuke from the FCC.

Since the doctrine was ditched, in a series of late-night legislative manipulations 22 years ago, honest players on the left and the right have proposed the restoration of the fairness doctrine or some variation thereof.

Unfortunately, the debate about bringing the fairness doctrine back, as it developed late in 2008, was not driven by those honest players. It became a distraction, designed to create the fantasy that a Democratic Congress and White House, faced with daily radio attacks from Rush Limbaugh and a conservative amen corner that explicitly expressed its hope for the failure of the popularly elected government, would seek to use its newfound authority to censor critics. Ben Scott, the savvy policy director of the media reform network Free Press, put it best when he observed, "An uncharitable interpretation is that they (Republicans) need an issue that unites their base and is an easy talking point for conservative radio."

There is a need for media reform in this country.

But the media reform movement -- taking counsel from working journalists -- has seldom made the restoration of the fairness doctrine a focus of its work.

Putting the fairness doctrine back on the books has not been the fundamental goal, or the purpose, of the media reform movement, which has developed into a serious force over the past decade.

Media reformers want competition, diversity of ownership and voices, and a renewal of the commitment to localism that encourages television and radio stations to cover the communities they are supposed to serve.

The point of smart media reform proposals is to create a framework in which rich, vibrant and democratic discourse is encouraged -- where conservatives, moderates and liberals, libertarians and greens, defenders of the status quo and radical reformers are all able to compete in a great marketplace of ideas.

There is no need for constraint, let alone censorship.

There is a need for more ideas, more discourse and more debate.

This is what the Congress and the FCC should be talking about. And when they get around to it, rest assured that congressional Republicans and their radio amen corner will object just as loudly.

They have never been all that worried about the fairness doctrine.

They're worried about what always scares them: a wide-open, freewheeling debate and the competition of ideas that encourages everyone to have their say and trusts the American people to sort things out.

Feingold and Kohl were wise to avoid the distraction of a debate over Republican talking points. There are real, and serious, debates to come about how to create a media system that sustains and encourages democracy. That's when we will need Feingold and Kohl to vote "yes" for competition, diversity and localism.

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