Last week, President-elect Barack Obama delivered his first weekly radio address since he was elected President. The broadcast made news, not only for its content, but also because it was streamed on the Internet, particularly on You Tube, but also retransmitted on many other websites. The fact that the Internet makes such transmissions not only possible, but so easy and so widely available demonstrates one of many reasons why all the worry about the return of the Fairness Doctrine is unwarranted. With access to so many diverse opinions not only on the radio but also through all of the new technologies, why should the government care that one radio station may not cover all sides of a controversial issue? If one station does not put on a strongly held viewpoint on an important issue, you can bet that someone who holds that viewpoint will find some way to transmit it to others.
The return of the Fairness Doctrine has been the great invisible monster in the room since the election – with many commentators, particularly conservative ones, worrying that the Democratic Congress will attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Off-hand comments such as those made by Senator Schumer on Fox News, have fueled this speculation, even though the Obama campaign has specifically rejected such a return. The Fairness Doctrine is one grounded in scarcity of the electronic spectrum – from the fear that if one side of an issue was allowed to dominate one of the few means of communicating with the population of a community, it would effectively be able to stifle the ability of those with contrasting viewpoints to get their message out. But, to use a phrase that is becoming increasingly popular – that thinking is so 20th Century.
The FCC itself abolished the Fairness Doctrine in the last century finding it unconstitutional, especially in light of the growth in the number of media outlets. Since the abolition, the number of available media outlets has increased exponentially. Just look at the recent elections, when blogs and other websites often drove the political conversation, identifying issues that were later picked up by the mainstream media, and debunking arguments and talking points that were disseminated by the mainstream media. The growth of the Internet alone shows how communications has become so diverse that there is no scarcity that could justify the imposition of a fairness requirement only on the broadcast media. There is so much other media that is delivered to any home – whether by new broadcast outlets, or by satellite or cable delivery, or even in print, that there can no longer be any scarcity justification for the Fairness Doctrine. Earlier this week, I attended the Future of Television Conference in New York City, where much of the conversation was on the delivery of television programming to cell phone handsets or other mobile devices. There is simply an explosion in the number of media outlets – and no justification for the return of the Fairness Doctrine.
Those who even discuss the return have to consider what it would mean. We have written about how it would be a prescription for the return of bland programming. Stations that run talk programming – whether it be Rush or Air America, would have to avoid the opinionated messages that they now air so that all sides of issues could be presented on every station. Why force every station to air the same opinions, when with the number of broadcast outlets available in most markets, there can be a real diversity of voices among the competing stations? I’ve heard some broadcasters say that the return of the Fairness Doctrine and the end of opinionated programming would effectively signal the end of the already ailing AM radio band which now relies very much on talk radio, compelling to niche audiences, to bring in audiences. Others forget that issue-oriented commercials also had to be "fair" – so if one side of an issue was able to buy advertising time on a station and the other side could not afford to buy time to respond, the station had to give the other side airtime – for free! Just imagine if such a requirement were put on newspapers, magazine or websites. In a moment, the Courts would declare any such government requirement unconstitutional.
So let’s hope that, in this multichannel universe with almost unlimited media outlets, the rumors of the return of the Fairness Doctrine are just that – rumors. In an administration looking to bring about change and take America into the future, let’s not look at yesterday’s rules to further imperil broadcasters in a very competitive, very uncertain time.