Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Fairness Doctrine?

Of all the Big Lies told by the pooh-bahs of talk radio - that our
biracial president hates white people, that global warming is a hoax,
that a public health care plan to compete with private insurers equals
socialism - the most desperate and deluded is this: that the so-called
Fairness Doctrine would squash free speech.


The Fairness Doctrine would not stop talk radio hosts from
spewing the invective that has made them so fabulously wealthy. All it
would do is subject their invective to a real-time reality check.

If you don't believe me, consult the historical evidence. The
Federal Communications Commission adopted the Fairness Doctrine in
1949. Because the airwaves were both public and limited, the FCC wanted
to ensure that licensees devoted "a reasonable amount of broadcast time
to the discussion of controversial issues,'' and that they did so
"fairly, in order to afford reasonable opportunity for opposing
viewpoints.'' That's the whole shebang.

Pretty terrifying stuff, huh?

Predictably, the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987
spurred a talk radio revolution. Why? Because talk radio's business
model is predicated on silencing all opposing viewpoints. If Rush
Limbaugh and his ilk were forced to engage in a reasonable debate,
rather than ad hominems, they would forfeit the moral surety - and the
seductive rage - that is the central appeal of all demagogues.

Would talk radio's bullies freak out? Absolutely. They know the
Fairness Doctrine would spell the end to their ongoing cultural
flim-flam. Besides, there's nothing so intoxicating to a fraudulent
moralist as the perfume of fraudulent martyrdom.

The real shock is that journalists haven't supported the Fairness
Doctrine. Then again, consider the state of "mainstream media''
outlets. Increasingly, they dine on the same fears and ginned-up wrath
as talk radio. Rather than wondering, "Does this story serve the public
good?'' they ask, "Will it get ratings?''

This is how fake controversies (death panels, the birther movement,
etc.) have pushed aside real issues, such as how to fix health care, or
address climate change. It's quite a racket. Talk radio hosts foment
ignorant rage, then their "mainstream'' brethren cover this ignorant
rage as news.

In so doing, the Fourth Estate has allowed the public discourse to
devolve into an echo chamber of grievance. The result is a body politic
incapable of recognizing the true nature of its predicaments, let alone
potential remedies.

And herein lies a tragic irony. This is the very reason the
FCC installed the Fairness Doctrine - not to silence extremists who
broadcast inflammatory lies, but to force them to share their
microphones with those who beg to differ, in reasoned tones, who
recognize that the crises of any age warrant mature debate, not
childish forms of denial.

Barack Obama arrived in Washington determined to lift our civic
discourse above the din of the echo chamber. But he appears determined
to ignore the very tool created to serve this end. Forget about
bickering with Fox News, Mr. President. If you want "fair and
balanced'' voices on the public airwaves, convince Congress, or the
FCC, to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.

If Obama and his congressional counterparts don't have the guts for
that fight, Americans of all political persuasions will continue to
seek out "news'' and opinions that merely reinforce their biases,
rather than forcing them to question those biases. America will
continue to limp along as a nation of enraged dittoheads, rather than
free-thinking citizens who may differ in our politics, but share an
honest desire to solve our common plights.

Which brings me to a final mystery: If today's conservative talkers
are so sure they're right about everything (and they certainly sound
sure), and if they believe so ardently in the First Amendment, why
don't a few of them screw up the courage to invite me onto their
programs to discuss the risks and rewards of the Fairness Doctrine? No
shouting or cutting off microphones. Just good, old-fashioned freedom
of speech.

Actually, consider that a dare.

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