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February 16, 2009

Liberals Need Not Revive the Relic That is the Fairness Doctrine


It is difficult to know what to make of calls to revive the Fairness Doctrine, to know whether recent calls to see it – raised yet again from the ash bin of history – are in earnest or whether there is some rhetorical point being made. Either way, here’s hoping that those calls go unanswered.


The Fairness Doctrine, which required media outlets to carry rebuttal to editorial voice, may have had its uses when it existed. That, however, was 20 years ago.


Most of those calls appear based on a desire to add balance to talk radio, which for years has been dominated by conservatives. Since the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has showcased a growing body of radio show hosts who increasingly do nothing more than compete to outdo each other in bombast. A new Fairness Doctrine would go a long way to tempering the worst of rhetorical excesses.


This, however, gives too much credit to talk radio. Twenty years ago, the number of media outlets were a great deal smaller, while today – according to the most recent surveys – most people get their information first from television and then from the Internet. Talk radio occupies a very small, narrow niche.


Ironically, it is liberals who have mastered the Internet. The Republican Party has been badly outclassed online. Conservative political blogs, which once rode a wave after dashing the career of Dan Rather, are a tool of the conservative fringe. They are a hangout of lunatic conspiracy theories like last year’s demand that Barack Obama make public his birth certificate, or that the Associated Press invented a source on an Iraqi mosque bombing who, it turns out, actually existed.


As crazed as much of this is, it’s also what today’s newspapers looked like at the beginning of the American journey, when the Founding Fathers authored the First Amendment. Back then, newspapers were little more than political party scandal rags. While newspapers work diligently to avoid libel and slander lawsuits today, they weren’t all that uncommon back in the late 1700s and early 1800s.


How the Fairness Doctrine would be applied to web sites today is anyone’s guess. The most-trafficked web sites, whose readership has now eclipsed some newspapers, would not go unaffected. Unfortunately, for many of those web sites, partisanship is the point. Daily Kos, considered the big daddy of liberal blogs, is less an informational source than it is an online gathering place for political activists. In fact, the Republican Party talks openly about copying the success Democrats have had online. Not surprisingly, the model they talk about using is several years old.


The point is not to inform the public, but to push people-powered politics. It is difficult to see what use there would be in that for conservative rebuttal, much less see how it could be applied when literally everyone is welcome to create an online identity and join the fray.


This, by the way, is all aside from the question of whether there are indeed two sides to every story. More often, there are more than two, and increasingly what passes for a second side in fact does not jibe well with the facts. For instance, imagine the rebuttal to an editorial last week expressing gratitude to Charles Darwin for an idea that has revolutionized mankind. Darwin has since been accused of heinous after-the-fact crimes, right up to the rise of Nazi Germany. Is it really fairness to force a television station to give air time to that?


Let us hope that this effort to revive the Fairness Doctrine is just one of those things that gets brought up when a new political philosophy takes control. The last time liberals were in charge of either the political process or the media itself was when it was the way things were done. It is a relic of a time long gone and deserves to remain a part of history.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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