Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”     Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

February 25, 2007

New York Congressman Proposes Assault On Free Speech

by Doug Mataconis

Maurice Hinchey, representing the 22nd District of New York, is proposing something called the Media Ownership Reform Act. What it really should be called is the Death Of Free Speech Act.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Our airwaves are a precious and limited commodity that belong to the general public. As such, they are regulated by the government. From 1949 to 1987, a keystone of this regulation was the Fairness Doctrine, an assurance that the American audience would be guaranteed sufficiently robust debate on controversial and pressing issues. Despite numerous instances of support from the U.S. Supreme Court, President Reagan’s FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and a subsequent bill passed by Congress to place the doctrine into federal law was then vetoed by Reagan.

MORA would amend the 1934 Communications Act to restore the Fairness Doctrine and explicitly require broadcast licensees to provide a reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.

Isn’t that what talk radio really is ? People call in and voice their opinions on the issues of the day. Yes, it’s true that most of the successful talk radio hosts lean to the right, but that is a reflection of two things; one is that the hosts are largely a reflection of their audience, and the other is that the truly successful hosts are the one’s that are entertaining. The reason Air America failed isn’t because of some vast conspiracy against the left, it’s because their on air personalities were just plain bad.

What the Fairness Doctrine really did when it was in effect, though, was give broadcasters an incentive to steer clear of controversial political topics. Spending the day programming talk shows about investments, or gardening or other things that really aren’t subjects of controversy is a heck of a lot easier than trying to ensure that every conceivable viewpoint on the subject of, say, the Iraq War, has an opportunity to be heard ?

Alex Harrison at Human Events puts forward the problem nicely:

Putting aside the flagrant violations of the First Amendment, compliance with a new Fairness Doctrine would be a nightmare. What constitutes an opposing viewpoint? Who gets to present that viewpoint? In our contentious and diverse world of politics, there are few issues which only have two sides. Is Cindy Sheehan’s view on the Iraq War the same as Hillary Clinton’s? Does Hillary get to come back and revise her opinion (again) after the latest poll? Is the naked “cut and run” policy of John Murtha the same as the nuanced “redeployment” of Monsieur Kerry? I suppose it depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is….

Renewing the Fairness Doctrine would not bring about the paradise of intellectual debate that it’s proponents dream of, instead it would bring the days of hard-hitting political talk radio to an end. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what it’s proponents want.

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8 Comments

  1. nobody is talking about suppressing the ultra-conservative television and radio personalities. We will always defend their right to speak, no matter how repugnant their ideas are to us.
    But we do not and cannot defend their right to suppress other ideas: to hang up the phone on the caller who disagrees, to restrict guests to one party and one position.
    Freedom suffers when only one side is represented in the media, when a monopoly on the airwaves belongs to one party.
    We don’t want an improved fairness doctrine because it will help us politically; we want it because we believe that a politically healthy
    nation is exposed to, and can choose from, a full range of possible views, without any being suppressed.

    Comment by John — February 25, 2007 @ 11:17 am
  2. I am amazed that you think that forcing someone to say, do or act as you think proper is somehow good for free speech.

    Comment by Adam Selene — February 25, 2007 @ 11:58 am
  3. John,

    You would suggest that radio hosts be forced to allow callers to hijack their radio shows for any reason? You would suggest that hosts be accountable to bureaucrats in order to handle their show programming and what guests they book?

    Do you really think these policies will result in good political debate on the radio, or will it result in the media returning to sports and other non-political programming altogether?

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — February 25, 2007 @ 12:34 pm
  4. The state of radio has become deplorable. Endless hours of misinformation and disinformation from clueless right-wingers that support wars, a fascist economy, and bigotry.

    If the word “liberal” was replaced with “black”, and the word “Muslim” was replaced with “Jew”, the government would shut down these bigots in a New York minute for hate speech.

    These crypto-fascist collectivists profit greatly from the use of the commons or the airwaves. It is government that has created this environment and it certainly won’t be government that solves it.

    Perhaps the FCC should be abolished and the radio frequency spectrum sold by lottery. This would be a step in the right direction. Laws and regulations should be repealed that promote business cartels in media and all other markets. This decentralization would allow local markets to have greater control over the airwaves.

    Also, big government apologist Alex Harrison doesn’t put forward the problem nicely, he spews standard right wing rhetoric. Regardless of how you view Hillary Clinton, the hypocritical Harrison probably has no problem when his “conservative” masters change their views based on opinion polls. I’m sure he believes “Great American” Sean Hannity does a great service promoting the ever changing RNC propaganda.

    The death of free speech indeed – free speech has been dead for a long time in the public commons. Thanks to government planners, we have tax laws, FCC regulations, and the cartilization of media that insures speech is quite expensive.

    Thank God for CD players and i-pods.

    Comment by Tom Blanton — February 25, 2007 @ 8:43 pm
  5. 1. The airwaves are not a commons with today’s technology.

    2. Your solution to something you don’t like is to get rid of freedom of speech.

    3. What’s wrong with the solution you choose right now, which is alternatives that don’t offend you?

    Comment by Adam Selene — February 26, 2007 @ 12:55 am
  6. Doug, great post. You’re dead on that the only thing the fairness doctrine does is effectively force broadcasters to avoid any topic that could possibly be construed as controversial.

    Along with the baseless claims and false information being spread about the so call “fairness doctrine” the same problem plagues the media ownership debate. The fact is that unless the FCC updates the media ownership rules to reflect the realities of today’s media landscape, local broadcasters cannot survive and continue providing free programming. Withe explosion of online media, blogs, as well as satellite and cable TV and radio, the local broadcasters are having a hard time competing for ad revenues. Just look what craigslist has done to the classified business of local newspapers. These local broadcasters and newspapers need the ability to combine in order to survive.

    Comment by Chris — February 28, 2007 @ 8:20 pm
  7. My apologies for the omission, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I consult with the NAB on the media ownership issue.

    Comment by Chris — February 28, 2007 @ 8:22 pm
  8. Adam asserts:

    “Your solution to something you don’t like is to get rid of freedom of speech”

    Your solution to debate is to claim someone wrote something they didn’t. Where do I say to get rid of freedom of speech?

    Decentralization is not getting rid of something. In fact there was a time when folks who claimed to be conservatives supported the concept (local control or states rights).

    I would also disagree that the airwaves are not part of the commons – they are, despite other alternatives.

    I would also suggest that local papers and radio stations might find they can survive better through competition and innovation. They would sell more ads if they lowered their rates. They would gain more listeners if they served particular niche markets. When most local stations were locally owned and owner operated, they had programming that was geared for the area they served. Conglomerate chains and programming directors 1,000 miles away were unheard of.

    Essentially what you have is a situation where radio stations should be operated as small local businesses, but are instead operated as large one-size-fits-all nationwide chains. If they find it difficult to make money with this model, it is their own fault and reveals a lack of imagination.

    Comment by Tom Blanton — March 10, 2007 @ 11:20 am

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