With the First Amendment, America’s already pretty fair

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald February 27, 2009 01:13 pm

Politicians in Washington, D.C., have been saying some scary things of late.

They often do this, of course.

Yet recent rhetoric seems to me especially troubling because one of the words in fashion is “fairness.”

Besides, say, “taxes,” I can’t think of any word I would less like to hear from the larynxes of lawmakers.

Fairness, in most contexts, has a pleasant connotation.

Congress is not like most contexts.

Congress is not like most things, actually. Which is good. Can you imagine if, for instance, fast food restaurants were like Congress?

A cheeseburger would cost $75 and the special sauce would as likely contain E.coli as mayonnaise.

As for words, all sorts of honest nouns and adjectives and even an occasional verb have gone to Washington and gotten themselves corrupted, like country rubes who travel to Hollywood hoping to become stars but end up lurking on the Sunset Strip.

Take, for instance, “investment.”

When you read that word you envision giving 100 bucks to someone who, some years later, will give you 200 bucks back (or next week, if you’re Hillary Clinton).

What Congress means by investment is taking your $100 and giving you. . . . well, they’ll get back to you on that.

When lawmakers talk about fairness these days they’re referring, in many cases, to the Fairness Doctrine.

The doctrine, which was enacted in 1949 and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, was never very fair.

Fortunately, it wasn’t much of a doctrine, either.

Anyway, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

It was supposed to ensure that radio and TV stations which broadcast over the publicly owned airwaves not only enlighten listeners and viewers about controversial issues, but do so in a “fair” way.

The notion that the government should control in any way what Americans say seems peculiar indeed in a country that thinks so highly of freedom of expression that it put it right at the top of the Bill of Rights.

But in reality “doctrine,” with its intimations of forced indoctrination, makes the rule sound a lot more sinister than it really was.

In 1974, a quarter-century after the Fairness Doctrine took effect, the federal government admitted as much. According to an FCC document from that year, although the commission concluded it had the legal authority to enforce the Fairness Doctrine, “it had not yet exercised that power because licensed broadcasters had voluntarily complied with the spirit of the doctrine.”

But the FCC also warned at the time that “should future experience indicate that the doctrine (of voluntary compliance) is inadequate, either in its expectations or in its results, the Commission will have the opportunity — and the responsibility — for such further reassessment and action as would be mandated.”

At least until 1987, when, at President Ronald Reagan’s behest, the FCC basically said “never mind.”

(And just to dispel the rumor that repealing the Fairness Doctrine was part of Reagan’s plot to stamp out liberalism, consider that the president’s advisers urged him to keep the doctrine. They argued that doing away with it would entice the Big 3 TV networks and PBS to indulge in some good old-fashioned Hitler-Reagan warmonger comparisons whenever they wanted.)

In the past couple of years some prominent politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. John Kerry, have said they support reviving the Fairness Doctrine, or some facsimile.

Their chief exhibit is the predominance of conservative talk radio.

I’ll admit the argument has the makings of a cool conspiracy theory.

After all, Rush Limbaugh — the godfather of conservative talk — went national with his show in 1988, the year after Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine.


Sure, and Lee Harvey Oswald was the proverbial lone gunman.

The basic premise of the Fairness Doctrine — to ensure that the public gets something from its ownership of the airwaves besides being scared out of its mind while listening to Orson Welles narrate a Martian invasion — is admirable.

And in 1949, when just 9 percent of American homes had a TV set and the net was something you hit shuttlecocks back and forth over, the government could make a credible case that without regulation, the public airwaves were vulnerable to the evil machinations of the propagandists.

(Well, credible if you don’t account for newspapers and magazines, which, I am pleased to note, have never had to kowtow to the whims of a federal agency’s doctrines, fair or otherwise.)

Today, of course, the notion that Americans can’t figure out what’s really going on without the government’s help is laughable.

Or it would be if Nancy Pelosi weren’t implying it’s true.

Pelosi and the other proponents of “fairness” seem to believe that the popularity of right-wing radio in some way threatens our republic, or at least weakens it.

Actually, Americans have never had it so good, information-wise.

Everyone has an opinion about everything. And all of them were in my e-mail inbox this morning.

In 1949 the only way your wacky neighbor could publicize his theories about Harry Truman and the Illuminati was to stand on the street corner and shout until his voice gave out. Or the police showed up.

Today your wacky neighbor who thinks George W. Bush was running air-traffic control on Sept. 11 has a blog.

And so do millions of other neighbors whose hypotheses are equally well-researched.

There’s plenty of the propaganda that government officials were fretting about back in 1949 when they imposed the Fairness Doctrine.

But I doubt they could have imagined that propaganda would become what it is today — so pervasive, so diverse, and most importantly so accessible, that a person has to be awfully stubborn, and clever, to remain oblivious to the reality that every issue has at least two sides.

And based on what I see on cable TV, most have a lot more than two.

If the absence of the Fairness Doctrine had allowed Limbaugh to become the omnipotent controller of minds that certain Democrats seem to believe he is, then Bill Clinton would still be living in Arkansas and Barack Obama would still be a Senator from Illinois.

(And Rod Blagojevich would be less famous, but a lot happier.)

In a recent column that was published in the Baker City Herald, Bill Press lamented conservatives’ near-monopoly in talk radio.

“And that must change,” Press wrote. “Not necessarily by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, but by requiring owners of broadcast licenses to serve the general public.”

I’m not sure what Press means by “serve.”

I’m afraid, though, that he’s been up to some Washington-style shenanigans with the word’s meaning.

The people radio stations ought to serve are their listeners. Which they do, by putting on programs that people like to listen to.

More people want to listen to Rush Limbaugh than to Randi Rhodes.

I’m all for Rhodes trying to change that. I just don’t want the government to help her.

Press contends Rhodes and other liberals can get good ratings and make money for stations if only they were “given a level playing field.”

But liberal talkers are denied that chance, Press argues. The “only reason there’s not more competition on American airwaves is that the handful of companies that own most radio stations do everything they can to block it.”

This is nonsense.

Does Press expect us to believe that the monolithic radio companies care more about ideology than about the profits that made them monoliths?

To believe that Rhodes could whip Limbaugh if only the government made sure she had a fair chance?

Sorry, Bill, but Rhodes has that chance every time she switches on her microphone.

Press mentions in his column six radio stations that have boosted their ratings since switching to what he describes as a “progressive” format.

Six out of 13,500.

And of the six, one is in Portland, and another in Madison, Wisc. I could get big ratings in either of those cities by chanting “George W. Bush is evil” for three hours a day.

In 1974 Warren Burger, Chief Justice of the United States, wrote that “government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.”

Berger was writing about a lawsuit involving a newspaper, but his conclusion is true of radio and TV as well.

Those who want to revert to 1949-style FCC control have, I think, perverted the concept of fairness that is expressed, with elegance and brevity, in the First Amendment.

It’s not fair, in their view, that conservatives dominate talk radio.

But that dominance is the result of all of us being free to turn the dial wherever we want.

The First Amendment doesn’t guarantees results. It guarantees rights.

It says each of us is free to express our opinion, but it doesn’t say anyone has to listen to us express it.

(Nor does it preclude anyone from telling you, or me, to shut the hell up.)

Put simply, we can say what we want, and hear what we want.

Which sounds pretty fair to me.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.