Friday, August 29, 2008

The unfairness of Fairness

On Wednesday evening Stanley Kurtz, an investigative reporter for National Review, appeared with host Milt Rosenberg on Chicago’s WGN, for a two hour of talk discussing the Obama/Ayers relationship. The switchboard lit up with hundreds of calls orchestrated by the Obama campaign attempting to shut the interview down. The following is from show producer Zack Christenson:

It’s interesting to see what lengths the Obama campaign is willing to reach to stifle dissenting voices. Kurtz said it best at the end of the show- If a respected conservative who writes for mainstream conservative publications like the Weekly Standard and National Review can’t speak his mind, then what dissenting opinion can be voiced? Did we see a preview of the fairness doctrine tonight?

This is just one more desperate effort to keep any discussion of the Obama/Ayers connection from “getting legs.” Obama supporters have bombarded TV stations carrying American Issues Project commercials with over 90,000 emails and tried to bully their advertisers. They have filed complaints with the FEC seeking to have the commercials banned. They have urged the Justice department to investigate AIP’s officers, directors and contributors. It is a thuggish effort to stifle free speech. But it is just dancing in the daisies compared to what Democrats really want. They want the Fairness Doctrine back. They want Rush off the air. The Fairness Doctrine is doublethink for a system that will eliminate political discourse on radio. That’s what Democrats want.

The Fairness Doctrine began in the late 1940s when radio was king. The rule applied only to radio and not TV. It held that with the scarcity of frequency spectrum, radio stations were obligated present opposing views. It is not the “equal time provision,” and doesn’t require equal time. Equal Time is a different rule affecting election time political attacks on radio and TV, and is no longer in effect.

While its purpose is admirable, Fairness in reality places an inordinate burden on broadcasters, chilling political discourse. You have to understand the mindset of the broadcaster. Protecting the broadcast license is the top, top priority, nothing else even comes second. They live in daily fear of the FCC yanking it. It is their livelihood. In the old days (pre-deregulation) license renewal came up every three years. When that time came, a station would prepare a summary of its public interest programming and community involvement showing they were in compliance with FCC guidelines. From thousands and thousands of pages of records showing religious broadcasting, community access, public affairs and news, they would cull the information into a report showing they had satisfied the public interest programming goals.

But the most important issue to be addressed at license renewal was, and still is, showing that every programming complaint from the public has been noted, addressed and resolved. Currently most, but not all complaints involve sexually explicit content, But that will change under Fairness. Based the recent Obama/Ayers commercial and WGN flap, it is not unreasonable for a station to expect several hundred partisan emails a day complaining about the fairness of Rush or Hannity. No station can respond to that kind of volume to the satisfaction of the FCC. AM stations that have brought us the most vibrant political discourse for the past 21 years, will revert to 50’s rock or go dark as many did in the 1980s under Fairness.

How will Fairness be reimposed? If there is a Democrat president, it most likely will be done under the rulemaking authority of the FCC, though it can be legislated. But that needs a filibuster proof Democrat Senate, a Democrat majority in the House and a Democrat president. Already Democrat FCC commissioners are trying to increase bureaucratic strictures on broadcast stations. They want to reduce the current 8 year license period to the former 3, and add vastly more detailed public interest programming reporting requirements. They just want to bring back the rule of fear the old system brought us. The advantage for having the FCC to do the dirty work of bringing back Fairness, instead of congress, is they can simply reimpose the old rule, avoiding debate on the issue of excluding the TV spectrum. Under no circumstances will Fairness be applied to TV. It will harm Democrats best friends, and bring a firestorm from the National Association of Broadcasters. Radio is only a small part of the broadcast money pie. TV is the pie. But it is this selectivity is that will ultimately kill Fairness in the courts.

It’s difficult to rationalize how the 6 mHz of an HDTV channel is somehow less important than 10 kHz of an AM station 1/600th the size. In fact the entire AM radio spectrum would fit into less than 20% of a single HDTV channel. Fairness was once upheld by the Supreme Court in 1969 (Red Lion), in an era before deregulation and before the internet and other media opened up massive new channels for political discussion. Ultimately any decision will be based on the First Amendment issue of whether the Fairness Doctrine encourages freedom of speech or chills it. The anwer is obvious. Fairness will be deemed unfair

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