Steve Almond

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Fairness Doctrine?

By Steve Almond
November 9, 2009

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OF ALL the Big Lies told by the pooh-bahs of talk radio - that our biracial president hates white people, that global warming is a hoax, that a public health care plan to compete with private insurers equals socialism - the most desperate and deluded is this: that the so-called Fairness Doctrine would squash free speech.


The Fairness Doctrine would not stop talk radio hosts from spewing the invective that has made them so fabulously wealthy. All it would do is subject their invective to a real-time reality check.

If you don’t believe me, consult the historical evidence. The Federal Communications Commission adopted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949. Because the airwaves were both public and limited, the FCC wanted to ensure that licensees devoted “a reasonable amount of broadcast time to the discussion of controversial issues,’’ and that they did so “fairly, in order to afford reasonable opportunity for opposing viewpoints.’’ That’s the whole shebang.

Pretty terrifying stuff, huh?

Predictably, the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 spurred a talk radio revolution. Why? Because talk radio’s business model is predicated on silencing all opposing viewpoints. If Rush Limbaugh and his ilk were forced to engage in a reasonable debate, rather than ad hominems, they would forfeit the moral surety - and the seductive rage - that is the central appeal of all demagogues.

Would talk radio’s bullies freak out? Absolutely. They know the Fairness Doctrine would spell the end to their ongoing cultural flim-flam. Besides, there’s nothing so intoxicating to a fraudulent moralist as the perfume of fraudulent martyrdom.

The real shock is that journalists haven’t supported the Fairness Doctrine. Then again, consider the state of “mainstream media’’ outlets. Increasingly, they dine on the same fears and ginned-up wrath as talk radio. Rather than wondering, “Does this story serve the public good?’’ they ask, “Will it get ratings?’’

This is how fake controversies (death panels, the birther movement, etc.) have pushed aside real issues, such as how to fix health care, or address climate change. It’s quite a racket. Talk radio hosts foment ignorant rage, then their “mainstream’’ brethren cover this ignorant rage as news.

In so doing, the Fourth Estate has allowed the public discourse to devolve into an echo chamber of grievance. The result is a body politic incapable of recognizing the true nature of its predicaments, let alone potential remedies.

And herein lies a tragic irony. This is the very reason the FCC installed the Fairness Doctrine - not to silence extremists who broadcast inflammatory lies, but to force them to share their microphones with those who beg to differ, in reasoned tones, who recognize that the crises of any age warrant mature debate, not childish forms of denial.

Barack Obama arrived in Washington determined to lift our civic discourse above the din of the echo chamber. But he appears determined to ignore the very tool created to serve this end. Forget about bickering with Fox News, Mr. President. If you want “fair and balanced’’ voices on the public airwaves, convince Congress, or the FCC, to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.

If Obama and his congressional counterparts don’t have the guts for that fight, Americans of all political persuasions will continue to seek out “news’’ and opinions that merely reinforce their biases, rather than forcing them to question those biases. America will continue to limp along as a nation of enraged dittoheads, rather than free-thinking citizens who may differ in our politics, but share an honest desire to solve our common plights.

Which brings me to a final mystery: If today’s conservative talkers are so sure they’re right about everything (and they certainly sound sure), and if they believe so ardently in the First Amendment, why don’t a few of them screw up the courage to invite me onto their programs to discuss the risks and rewards of the Fairness Doctrine? No shouting or cutting off microphones. Just good, old-fashioned freedom of speech.

Actually, consider that a dare.

Steve Almond, a guest columnist, is the author of five books, most recently the essay collection “(Not that You Asked).’’

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