What If They Really Had to be Fair and Balanced?

One of the most significant components of the Right’s ascendance to national dominance is their ongoing relationship with the media. Facilitating media deregulation, thereby enabling consolidation of more and more media sources among fewer and fewer owners, intimidating journalists and media outlets by threatening to block access as retribution for failure to report issued talking points, rewarding partisan broadcasters (especially rightwing radio hosts) with news tips and invites to the White House, loud and repeated accusations of a liberal media bias, and now covert payoffs to conservative media operatives for the appearance of unbiased policy endorsements have all been part and parcel of the media strategy utilized by the Right to attain control of all three branches of government, and command of the national debate.

But perhaps the most important element of the Right’s plan to take over the media is also the least talked-about: the Fairness Doctrine. Established by the FCC in 1949 to ensure that broadcasters met their perceived obligation to afford reasonable access to opposing viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance, the Fairness Doctrine was an important FCC policy for decades, integral to preventing the existence of a Fox News Channel, for example.

It was under Reagan’s watch that the GOP began to challenge the Fairness Doctrine, and it was under his watch that it was eventually dismantled. Bipartisan support for it remained strong, though, and Congress attempted to reinstate the Doctrine under Reagan (who vetoed it), Bush 41 (who threatened a veto, effectively killing it), and Clinton, who in a spectacular fit of almost inconceivable indifference, offered next to no support for a revival of the Doctrine, leaving it to languish in Congress where it gasped its last breath.

(When you bitch and moan about the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O’Reillys who seem to infect our airwaves with increasing frequency, you can thank Mr. Clinton for not nipping that in the bud when it was first gaining traction. Of course, I’m fairly certain that the irony of having passed on the opportunity to vehemently support reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine in 1993, years before Fox made their name skewering him and endlessly spinning his liaison and lie, hasn’t been lost on him.)

Part of the fallout of the payola scandal, however, has been renewed interest in the Fairness Doctrine. Eric Boehlert reports in Salon:
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., thinks the growing outrage over media misconduct will help spur interest in the doctrine. Last week she introduced the Fairness and Accountability in Media Act, which would revive the Fairness Doctrine with new requirements for local broadcasters.


Media consolidation "is the most critical issue facing the American people today: whether to allow a handful of people to determine what information we receive and influence the decisions we make," says Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who will head the soon-to-be announced Media Reform Caucus in Congress. "In a free and open society, in a democratic republic, you need a free and open discussion of the issues. We don't have that today."


Bipartisan displeasure with the press may also allow the Media Reform Caucus, which at first will likely consist entirely of Democrats, to enlist some Republicans. In the uphill battle to restore real fairness and balance to the airwaves, backers will need all the help they can get.
Media Reform is not a particularly glamorous issue. It’s fairly wonky and dry, with basic knowledge of broadcasting licensing (i.e. who would be subject to the rules of a new Fairness Doctrine) requisite knowledge for debate, and no compelling humanitarian arguments, like health care or Social Security reform. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that it’s something liberals need to get behind. None of our navel-gazing about whether to move left or move center or how to rebrand the Democratic Party will amount to a hill of beans if the media remains so lopsided.

Perhaps a good place to start is emailing Rep. Slaughter and Rep. Hinchey and let them know you appreciate what they’re doing. Dems who feel passionately about this issue are thin on the ground, so I’m sure they’d dig the support.

Contact Rep. Slaughter.
Contact Rep. Hinchey.

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