Our Media Need a Fair and Balanced Doctrine
Topic: Progressive Op-Ed Program
(This article originally appeared at Alternet.org)
Just minutes after noon, on January 20, 2009, "hope" arrived for Constitutionalists and supporters of its First Amendment. A slight, little-noticed, but exceedingly noteworthy paragraph appeared on the new Administration's White House website "Technology" page.
"Encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media," the paragraph began, "promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum."
After more than a decade of private corporatization of virtually every inch of bandwidth across the public airwaves, a new day seemed to be dawning with a new Administration's indication that they might reverse years of cynical, self-serving mismanagement of the people's airwaves by a few, very large, very far-right leaning corporations who had been granted priceless government largesse in the form of broadcast licenses without the responsibility of serving the public interest in exchange.
"Hope" would be short lived. By summer, the paragraph had been quietly excised from the White House website without a trace, apology or even an explanation.
The rightwing-dominated media's War Against Restoration of the Fairness Doctrine had been won before those who might have joined the battle were even aware there had been a first skirmish.
For months following Obama's election, the rightwing media had used the public airwaves to combat what they had contended was a devious "Liberal plan" to stifle "conservative" opinion on them. The Democrats, we were told, had planned to remove voices such as Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, Savage and the nearly endless cadre of rightwing Republicanists from the airwaves. Never mind there was never any such plan, no matter how much progressives might have liked to bring back diversity of opinion -- fairness and balance, if you will -- to the public's airwaves.
A fair and balanced discussion of unfair and unbalanced rightwing corporate domination of the media is difficult to wage across a rightwing corporate-dominated media. So, it seems, the new stewards of the public's own airwaves -- the Executive Branch -- decided it was largely easier to quit than to fight. Once again, the only industry specifically recognized by explicit guarantees in the U.S. Constitution would go unprotected again. The corporate masters of that industry would have free reign, while the values meant to be protected by our founders would continue to disappear, nearly as quickly as a paragraph on Obama's White House website.
Freedom of the press would continue instead as freedom for America's wealthiest corporations to dominate it to their own self-serving advantage, for the foreseeable future.
After forty years, Ronald Reagan's dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 had succeeded in embedding neither fair nor balanced voices like Limbaugh on the airwaves, without meeting the responsibility of offering any voices of opposition.
That damage to a free press was compounded exponentially with Bill Clinton's disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996. Sold with the promise of bringing more competition to the airwaves, the act resulted [PDF] in anything but, with just five or six media conglomerates ultimately taking ownership of virtually all broadcast licenses across the nation.
The result would be a Limbaugh Nation. Opposing and/or diverse voices all but disappeared. The few progressive voices allowed on air would be ghettoized, by the same corporate conglomerates, onto low wattage stations, or simply done away with all together.
The promised competition in the marketplace never occurred. Where it does today, in the few markets where a progressive voice is allowed a level playing field against a right-winger, the progressive often wins the day. progressive Stephanie Miller, for example, is heard in about 40 markets, where she regularly beats right-winger Laura Ingraham in the same time slot in the morning. Yet Ingraham is carried by nearly 350 affiliate stations. Many of those stations are owned by just a few companies, yet for some reason, they'd rather have the corporatist-friendly Ingraham on as many stations as possible, despite Miller's better ratings. So much for fair competition.
In several of the largest markets, the same corporate outfit runs both a "conservative" and a "progressive" talk station. In many cases, the same Program Director manages both stations. Guess which one gets the big promotional dollars, the management's attention, and the higher wattage frequency reaching millions more listeners?
Despite what you may have heard -- on those corporate-owned right-wing stations -- supporters of diversity on them do not wish to remove voices like Limbaugh from the public airwaves. They do, however, wish to see balance and oversight of the public's property, which corporations license, for free, from the government, on the grounds that they use them in the "public interest." That "public interest", however, has never been defined, and the FCC, the arbiter of that interest, has never bothered to enforce it.
So, Limbaugh is welcome to stay right where he is, for three hours a day, on hundreds of affiliate stations. But perhaps those same hundreds of stations ought to be required to give the next three hours on each of those days to a progressive voice like Thom Hartmann. That would allow both competition, which conservatives claim to believe in, and for the "public interest" to be served.
In 1856 Abraham Lincoln told fellow Republicans: "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government."
He was right. And after decades of allowing little more than one viewpoint to reach the public across our airwaves, opinion has become so skewed to the right that changing either government or public opinion has become nearly impossible. How else to explain angry "tea party" mobs suddenly infuriated by "big government" and "violations of the Constitution" by Obama and the Democrats, after eight years of virtual silence from those same mobs, despite a Republican-dominated government which ballooned government spending to record levels, while blatantly violating section after section of the U.S. Constitution?
The angry mobs were not instructed by the 24/7 rightwing media that the corporate-friendly Republicans had committed every supposed crime the mobs now incorrectly believe Obama and the Democrats are committing.
Constitutionalists and progressives alike must demand that we restore freedom to the public airwaves. We must make room for as many voices as possible, by rescinding the governmental welfare given to a handful of single-minded corporations. Without freedom of the airwaves, there is no freedom of the press.
It won't be easy, given who now owns virtually all of the microphones. But we've got to start somewhere. What say we start by calling it the "The Fair and Balance Doctrine"? That might win over a few previously disinformed converts.
This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute's Progressive Op-Ed Program