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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.
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