Swans Commentary » swans.com August 13, 2007  



The Chilling Effect: The Fairness Doctrine


by Gerard Donnelly Smith





(Swans - August 13, 2007)   Disabled by a Reagan-appointed FCC, the Fairness Doctrine should have been reinstated after both houses of Congress passed a law that would require FCC enforcement. Reagan vetoed the law, and the public airwaves have never been the same.

The argument was that the Fairness Doctrine had a "chilling effect" on free speech; that journalists resented and resisted finding opposing voices for their stories on controversial issues. Yet, that argument was and still is a "straw man," for the doctrine did not stop any journalist from writing, nor stop any citizen from stating his/her opinion. The doctrine only required that broadcast news shows be fair and balanced. Personal attacks and political editorials full of lies and distortions would not be aired on television and radio, because the doctrine, when enforced, would require the stations to provide airtime for the opposition to counter the lies and distortions.

In other words, freedom of speech would be improved by a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. Debate over controversial issues is essential in a democratic society so that consensus can be achieved. Without a fairness doctrine, the public may be misinformed by so called "news agencies" that are controlled by corporate ideologues who support political parties friendly to their agendas. Under such situations, anti-democratic propaganda can be disseminated on the airwaves to an audience that believes the news is factual, and that journalists are objective.

Consider previous situations in Congress, when a Republican majority in both houses stifled debate, investigation, and oversight. The abuses and crimes of the current administration are allowed to continue unchecked. Moreover, very little of the frustrations and activities of the Democrats is broadcast on the "public" airwaves because conservative corporations censor the news. Instead, the opposition party is portrayed as obstructionist, unpatriotic, and supportive of terrorism if any speak out against the president's foreign or domestic policies.

With a doctrine of fairness, a full debate about the war would have taken place on radio and television. The lies of the Bush administration, for which they should all be impeached, would have been exposed by investigative journalists who would have been protected by the fairness doctrine. Perhaps exposure on all prime-time stations compels Bush to resist reinstatement. That is the "chilling effect" that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine has had. Unscrupulous journalists and broadcasters are allowed to disseminate lies, and some journalists who might provide a well-balanced argument refrain because they may be fired. Conservative corporations, which control the airwaves and by proxy the conservative administration, don't want the truth let out.

In an article written for FAIR, Steve Rendall reported that "80 hours per week, more than 4,000 hours per year, [were] programmed for Republican and conservative talk shows, without a single second programmed for a Democratic or liberal perspective" on just two Eugene, Oregon, radio stations. The source of this information, lawyer Edward Monks, concluded: "Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society." Those statistics are repeated across the country, and if it weren't for Air America and late-night comedy, the liberal opposition would have no broadcast voice.

This ability to dominate public debate is the greatest danger of unregulated broadcasting.

The Heritage Foundation, the ultra right-wing think tank, argues that the Fairness Doctrine will stifle freedom of speech because "broadcasters would be more reluctant to air their own opinions because it might require them to air alternative perspectives that their audience does not want to hear." This argument that the Fairness Doctrine will cause "self-censorship" to avoid a drop in ratings cannot be taken seriously. The principle of "if it bleeds it leads" repudiates the argument; broadcasters will air controversial debates because Americans like a good fight. Moreover, if all stations must present fair and balanced news and debate, then a loss of audience will not occur, because "turning the dial" won't silence the opposition. The audience will either have to watch the fair and balanced news, or simply turn off the television.

That would not be a negative result either.


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About the Author

Gerard Donnelly Smith on Swans (with bio).



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Published August 13, 2007