Honesty, Please, On Fairness Doctrine

By Mitchell Kaidy

So mired in distortion and misinformation, the debate about the FCC Fairness Doctrine rolls on with little resemblance to the doctrine that America once lived with for decades.

During that period, I was fortunate to have invoked the doctrine productively numerous times on stations in Rochester, N.Y. Besides that, in that era I worked for both television and radio stations and witnessed its invocation as a fairly regular practice.

The Doctrine, which goes back to an initiative of Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, did not, as widely asserted, automatically involve a government agency in free speech. Quite the contrary, nearly all requests for airtime were decided on the local level—by the station licensee who made the initial decision whether to grant time on “a controversial issue of public importance.”

It was only after a citizen or citizens group was refused an opportunity to present a contrary position on a controversial issue that an appeal could be made to the Federal Communications Commission, which then, as now, rendered a bipartisan ruling.

That may be the most significant—and deliberate—omission in the debate about whether to restore some sanity to the misrepresentations of Rush Limbaugh—Bill O’Reilly—Glenn Beck—Laura Ingram—Michael Savage—Lou Dobbs extremism on current talk radio.

For over 40 years during which listeners sought free time on broadcast radio—later television—it was routine for the majority of the requests to be granted or declined by the station licensee.

What is never mentioned by rightwing talknuts is that for four decades the FCC held the stations to much higher public performance standards—among the most trying the “local ascertainment” rule. “Local ascertainment” meant that stations had to seek out and broadcast significant local news, including information vital to minorities and their issues.

The community played its own significant role. Every three years, the FCC renewed radio and television licenses, inviting public input before acting. No longer. These days, licenses are granted for eight years, and public participation is virtually unheard of in judging a station’s performance.

In my experience, the controversy about the Fairness Doctrine and other regulation boils down to rightwing prejudice and profitmaking. Or it could be profitmaking and prejudice? For station licensees to report on important local issues, as was once legally mandated, requiring the maintenance of costly news staffs. To comply with a renewed Fairness Doctrine, granting free time would sacrifice even more advertising revenue.

The systematic, decades-long acquisition of radio and television stations by large conglomerates—plus the disappearance of local news staffs—put an exclamation point on the objectives of rightwing ideologues and their corporate sponsors. Over the air, local radio news is disappearing, while homogenized right-wing commentaries take their place from Seattle to Dallas to Atlanta to Portland, Maine.

This kind of intense, systematic storm of misinformation and prejudice, coupled with moneymaking greed, is, or should be, intolerable in a democracy that pretends to want an informed electorate. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-Rochester, N.Y.) has introduced a Fairness Doctrine bill. The Obama administration should be listening and aiding.

[Rep. Slaughter introduced the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Bill reinstating the Fairness Doctrine in 2005 but it and similar bills have not gotten out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Senate voted 87-11 on Feb. 25 to bar federal regulators from reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. The vote was on an amendment to a bill giving the District of Columbia a voting member of Congress.]

A contributor to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in 1963, Mitchell Kaidy is a freelance writer in Rochester, N.Y.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2009

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