Archive for Sunday, December 7, 2008

Scarcity doesn’t justify broadcast controls

December 7, 2008


— Reactionary liberalism, the ideology of many Democrats, holds that inconvenient rights, such as secret ballots in unionization elections, should be repealed; that existing failures, such as GM, should be preserved; and, with special perversity, that repealed mistakes, such as the “fairness doctrine,” should be repeated. That Orwellian name was designed to disguise the doctrine’s use as the government’s instrument for preventing fair competition in the broadcasting of political commentary.

Because liberals have been even less successful in competing with conservatives on talk radio than Detroit has been in competing with its rivals, liberals are seeking intellectual protectionism in the form of regulations that suppress ideological rivals. If liberals advertise their illiberalism by reimposing the fairness doctrine, the Supreme Court might revisit its 1969 ruling that the fairness doctrine is constitutional. The court probably would dismay reactionary liberals by reversing that decision on the ground that the world has changed vastly, pertinently and for the better.

Until the Reagan administration extinguished it, the doctrine required broadcasters to devote reasonable time to fairly presenting all sides of any controversial issue discussed on the air. The government decided the meaning of the italicized words.

When government regulation of the content of broadcasts began in 1927, the supposed justification was the scarcity of radio spectrum. In 1928 and 1929, when Republicans ran Washington, a New York station owned by the Socialist Party was warned to show “due regard” for others’ opinions, and the government blocked the Chicago Federation of Labor’s attempted purchase of a station because all stations should serve “the general public.” In 1939, when Democrats ran Washington, the government conditioned renewal of one station’s license on that station’s promise to desist from anti-FDR editorials.

In 1969, when the Supreme Court declared the fairness doctrine constitutional, it probably did not know the Kennedy administration’s use of it, as one official described it: “Our massive strategy was to use the fairness doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.” Richard Nixon emulated this practice. In 1973, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, a liberal, said the doctrine “has no place in our First Amendment regime” because it “enables administration after administration to toy with TV or radio.”

The court’s 1969 ruling relied heavily on the scarcity rationale. But Brian Anderson and Adam Thierer, in their book “A Manifesto for Media Freedom,” note that today there are about 14,000 radio stations, twice as many as in 1969, and 18.9 million subscribers to satellite radio, up 17 percent in 12 months, and 86 percent of households with either cable or satellite television receive an average of 102 of the 500 available channels. Because daily newspapers are much more scarce than are radio and television choices, should there be a fairness doctrine for The New York Times?

The 1969 court dismissed as “speculative” the possibility that the fairness doctrine would cause broadcasters to “eliminate coverage of controversial issues.” But the proper worry was that the doctrine would continue to stifle the flowering of controversy. A court that considers the doctrine today will note that whereas in 1980 there were fewer than 100 talk radio programs, today there are more than 1,500 news or talk radio stations.

Further subverting the “scarcity” rationale for government supervision of broadcast content, some liberals now say: The problem is not maldistribution of opinion and information, but too much of both. Until recently, liberals fretted that the media were homogenizing America into blandness. Now they say speech management by government is needed because of a different scarcity — the public’s attention, which supposedly is overloaded by today’s information cornucopia.

And these worrywarts say the proliferation of radio, cable, satellite broadcasting and Internet choices allows people to choose their own universe of commentary, which takes us far from the good old days when everyone had the communitarian delight of gathering around the cozy campfire of the NBC-ABC-CBS oligopoly. Being a liberal is exhausting when you must simultaneously argue for illiberal policies on the basis of dangerous scarcity and menacing abundance.

If reactionary liberals, unsatisfied with dominating the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood, were competitive on talk radio, they would be uninterested in reviving the fairness doctrine. Having so sullied liberalism’s name that they have taken to calling themselves progressives, liberals are now ruining the reputation of reactionaries, which really is unfair.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 2 months ago

If you're going to make the claim that the plethora of media outlets negates the need for the fairness doctrine, George, than you'd better also begin to argue against the further monopolization of those outlets by companies like Clear Channel, who use that power to promote a very narrow, and right-wing, political agenda.

TacoBob 9 years, 2 months ago

Leave this be. Vote with your dial finger, change the station if you don't like the bent. For all the left stands for, this would be a typical ACLU-type fight if it was slanted the other way.Prediction - the far right talk radio stance will soften (it has ready has in this market) as the Obama factor takes hold. Fatigue is one of many factors. And too many problems that are hitting most of us now.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 2 months ago

Overall, NPR's on-air reporting is actually quite centrist, which in the US means that it actually leans center-right, if anything. Sure, they represent left-leaning points of view, just as they represent centrist and right-leaning points of view. While they do get a fair amount of government funding, they have to be very careful not to offend many people very often, or that funding could be (and has been) threatened, which is precisely why it's actually fairly centrist in its broadcasts."According to the 2005 financial statement, NPR makes just over half of its money from the fees and dues it charges member stations to receive programming, although some of this money originated at the CPB itself, in the form of pass-through grants to member stations.[8] About 2% of NPR's funding comes from bidding on government grants and programs, chiefly the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the remainder comes from member station dues, foundation grants, and corporate underwriting. Typically, NPR member stations raise about one-third of their budget through on-air pledge drives, one-third from corporate underwriting, and one-third from grants from state governments, university grants, and grants from the CPB itself."

Flap Doodle 9 years, 2 months ago

Air America couldn't even make it after stealing from a charity in New York. They deserve to go under.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 2 months ago

What right-wingnut radio really shows is that the "market" is not always the best answer. Major corporations buy ad time on those stations because it produces propaganda that promotes political viewpoints that protect their businesses, their profits, and their control of government-- and the recent collapse of the economy is among the fruits of that fascist message and brainwashing.

jonas_opines 9 years, 2 months ago

"NPR (National People's Republic) is left-leaning, and always has been."Because you say so?

devobrun 9 years, 2 months ago

Rush received and gave a huge boost to the soft drink Snapple. They were early advertisers and grew tremendously. The success of this relationship caused Limbaugh's earning power to expand a lot. The relationship was purely $. Politics didn't factor into Snapple. There were no laws, subsidies, or influence politically regarding Snapple.Most of the advertising on Limbaugh is for startups and relatively small growth companies. You hear about gold investors, language software, compute-at-home software companies. You don't get adverts from Microsoft, Con-Agra, Peabody Coal. Large institutions like HP are more likely to fund NPR through non-profits like various foundations (William Hewlett, etc).I think you don't understand, Bozo, that the mainstream establishment is liberal. You won, Bozo. The interesting, radical, new ideas are not coming from the old money in the northeast, or from Hollywood, or liberals arts colleges in Ohio. Nope, the progressive new stuff comes from people who question authority, the authority of government supported reactionary liberals.When liberals become manifest in government and the mainstream media you get the same illiberal control that was challenged in the 1960s. Modern liberalism includes gay rights and speech control at the same time. George Will points out the hypocrisy, and rational paradox of the modern liberal who wishes to reign over others just like the conservatives of the 1950s. Become truly liberal folks, question authority, even your own.

Corey Williams 9 years, 2 months ago

Sorry. The "mainstream establishment is [not] liberal." The mainstream establishment is, at best, centrist. It exists only to make money off of whatever is popular at the moment. At it's worst, it is more conservative because it follows the beliefs of whoever is currently at the helm of the major corporations of the time.To say that NPR is left leaning is completely wrong. They have some leftist commentary every so often, but even then it doesn't go as far from the center as Hannity. And if you believe all liberals want this reinstated, then you are as much of a moron as George Will can sometimes be. I get some of my news from NPR, but I get my entertainment from the hilarious programs they have on the bott radio network. There is no one out there as funny as the idiot from aclj. If that avenue is taken away from me, where will I go for my comedic entertainment?

texburgh 9 years, 2 months ago

We need the fairness doctrine and other forms of media regulation more than ever because media - despite having more outlets than ever - is being concentrated more and more in the hands of only a few people. Look at Rupert Murdoch's empire or Ted Turner's. Just look at the Simon's empire right here in Lawrence - he owns the newspaper, the cable, and area television stations. Controlling that much was once illegal. We needed regulation less in the days when there were fewer outlets and there was actually a thing called local broadcasting.

frazzled 9 years, 2 months ago

The topic sentence of this column, about "reactionary liberalism", is the typical sort of straw man that George Will so often employs. As usual, Will misrepresents what liberalism is.

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