Limiting Free Speech (8): The Fairness Doctrine, Limiting or Improving Speech?

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – currently no longer applicable – that required television stations to deal with issues in a fair and balanced way, and to present contrasting viewpoints and give them all some air time (but not necessarily equal air time). The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine.

Self-censorship

The FCC, when headed by Reagan appointees, abolished the policy because

the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of [the Fairness Doctrine] restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters

and hence “chills speech” and violates the First Amendment. In order to avoid to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every story, some journalists will supposedly refrain from covering some stories. Hence you have a de facto, not de jure, limit on free speech resulting from self-censorship.

What scarcity?

Another reason given for abolishing the doctrine was that the “scarcity argument” is no longer valid. In the old days, when the number of media outlets was limited, the public couldn’t go elsewhere to find other viewpoints, and the Fairness Doctrine could be justified. Today, however, with the internet, blogosphere, cable and satellite television, this is no longer the case. If anything, there’s too much punditry.

Public support

There’s some truth in all of this, but still I think there are good reasons for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

  • First of all, the claim that it limits free speech is somewhat awkward. How can a rule that multiplies the number of views and arguments that are represented in the media, be called a limit on the freedom of speech? If journalists will not cover a topic in order to avoid having to go and find opposing views, than this is either because there are no opposing views (if there are, they will quickly assert themselves) or because the journalists are lazy. After all, why do we have Google?
  • Secondly, there’s public support for the Fairness Doctrine. A recent poll by Scott Rasmussen asked whether the government should require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of liberal and conservative political commentary. 47 percent said “yes”, 39 percent were opposed.
  • Thirdly, the scarcity argument is still valid, albeit in another way. Sophisticated audiences, tech savvy, with knowledge of where to find information and enough spare time to do so, will not benefit from a reinstated Fairness Doctrine. They will make sure that they get their balanced information from different sources if one source isn’t balanced. But other people will benefit, in particular those who rely on one or a few media-outlets for their information. Some of these people may be burdened by low levels of education and poverty, and hence are especially vulnerable to the effects of one-sided reporting.
  • And finally, it is common knowledge that the quality of public debate and information in the U.S. is not what it could be. What we hear and see on television, radio and the internet is often no more than shrill partisan shouting. The issues are oversimplified, nuances get lost, sound bites rule, and much of the time the really important issues are pushed back by sensational trivia or personal attacks. A requirement to air opposing views would temper this and would improve the quality of political debate.

Democracy rests on opinions: opinions of candidates on policies, opinions of the people on candidates and policies, opinions on proposed policies and on executed policies. It’s therefore of the utmost importance that these opinions have some kind of value and aren’t knee-jerk impulses, prejudices, intuitions based on personal attacks, etc. Only well-considered opinions are good opinions and well-considered opinions are those that are tested in discussion and that survive as many counter-arguments as possible (see here).

Clearly, the media have a responsibility in this respect and have to present the struggle between arguments. They shouldn’t just be the mouthpiece of one side of the argument. They are indeed the “fourth estate” and are necessary for the functioning of a democracy.

We shouldn’t forget that opinions are not readily available. They are the result of thinking, studying, deliberation and discussion. If we want the people to have opinions, and preferably well-considered opinions, then we have to create frameworks for debate. We shouldn’t allow democratic elections – or even opinion polls and referenda – to be a simple system for tapping opinions that aren’t based on debate, or that often don’t even exist as opinions when they have to be tapped.

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5 thoughts on “Limiting Free Speech (8): The Fairness Doctrine, Limiting or Improving Speech?

  1. And just who decides what is liberal and what is conservative. Sounds like making government bigger. Another group of people to decide? and how are they chosen?

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