In a post last Friday about the “Fairness” Doctrine, a commenter quipped:
Imagine the outcry when the wacko Phelps family of Kansas gets to have anti-gay programs on all of the stations that have pro-gay rights material.
Heh. Funny – but as luck would have it, that’s not how the “Fairness” doctrine works.
Here’s how I remember it working in the first eight years of my radio “career”, from 1979 to 1987, when both the Doctrine and my job at KSTP were repealed.
The “Fairness” Doctrine didn’t assign ideological quotas to station’s programming; there was no bureaucrat in the Minneapolis office poring over stations’ schedules, coloring in liberal shows in crimson and conservative shows in blue, comparing swatches, and issuing orders to reprogram dayparts.
What the “Fairness” doctrine did was give the public – or parts of the public that were up in arms about a station’s presentation of one or several issues – legal and procedural grounds to challenge a station’s license renewal.
When stations renew their licenses (and I forget what the time period is for that; it happens every several years; I want to say “seven”, but don’t bet your mortgage on that), the FCC takes complaints from the public about the station’s “public service”. During the period of the “Fairness” Doctrine, that meant that people could write the FCC and complain that the station’s politics didn’t grant equal time to one view or another. Investigating these complaints and adjudicating them was part of the license renewal process was part of getting the license renewed; the FCC could assign corrective actions or (in theory; don’t know if it ever happend) deny renewal.
For most radio stations, the “programming” was mostly music – a matter of taste, certainly, but not a matter of public policy interest; writing to the FCC to demand a country station switch to alt-rock (record stores in Minnepolis in the mid ’80s frequently had “petitions” sitting around from groups that wanted the FCC to “serve the public” by forcing, say, K102 or KOOL108 or some other FM frequency to play alternative rock) would pretty much fall on deaf ears. But stations did (and to an extent, still do) have to show some effort to serve the public interest; these efforts had/have to be documented to the FCC at license renewal time. For a music station – like the first four I worked at – it was a matter of filing logs showing that the station had played
- public service announcements – non-paying commercial spots for non-profits and charities.
- “public affairs programs” – these still pop up; some stations will do a half-hour interview with some community figure or organization, and play it back on Sunday mornings when nobody’s listening and it won’t kill the ratings.
- news – back then, anyway. This hasn’t counted in over 20 years – which is why radio station news departments are scarcer than polka stations these days.
For talk stations, though, the potential was there to discuss controversial topics – news, current events, social issues and so on. These issues go way beyond having political overtones; most are inextricably political.
Under the “Fairness” Doctrine, the public could complain about the “balance” of the station’s presentation; at renewal time, if people complained the station was “too liberal”, the management had two options: have some sort of counterbalancing conservative on the air so they could tell the FCC they were taking measures to balance things out (which was how I got my first show, in 1986; KSTP had plenty of liberals on the air, and Scott Meier put me on weekend graveyards to cover the station’s butt for very, very cheap), or avoid controversy in the first place.
It all came down to showing to the FCC’s satisfaction that the broadcaster was adequately “serving the public interest”, so they’d renew the station’s license to use their frequency.
Since the license was mandatory for keeping the station on the air, most stations’ managers opted not to rock the boat – opted to play toward the middle and avoid complaints that could lead to costy, license-risking challenges.
So if the “Fairness” doctrine is reinstated, what’ll happen?
There won’t be any more time given to Fred Phelps; there won’t be a huge phalanx of complaints demanding equal time for his views. I have THAT much faith in my fellow citizens.
There also won’t be any equal time for conservatives on network newscasts, because it’s news and journalism, and everyone knows news and journalism are balanced and objective. Also they subscribe to “journalistic codes of ethics”, and while you and I both know that a “journalistic code of ethics” is nothing but a framework to rationalize dodgy behavior on the part of journalists, to the FCC it’s a get-out-of-“fairness”-free card. It’s not bias – it’s journalism!
But talk radio? The leaders of the medium – Limbaugh, Hannity, Ingraham, Hewitt, the Northern Alliance – proudly identify themselves as conservatives. It’s part of their marketing; it’s how they reach their audience.
So when stations come up for renewal, their schedules will show a number of hours of talk that, for marketing purposes, labelse itself “conservative” talk. And in a world where Atrios and Kos draw half a million visits a day, the left powers that be COULD, in a “Fairness Doctrine” run broadcast world, send hordes of droogs after that station up for renewal, demanding more liberal programming “in the public interest”; an Obama-appointed FCC would likely give the complaints plenty of credence. In order to retain their license, the station would have to add some liberal programming, like the Stephanie Miller or Ed Schultz – if they’re lucky (they’re the two liberals who show any life in the ratings at all) – or some stiff like “Lionel” or Michael Jackson (who do not). While there is nearly no audience for this programming, the FCC will be acting on the complaints, not ad receipts or ratings. The station would do as well to leave the transmitter off.
Of course, conservatives could in theory challenge the licenses of the few liberal talk stations – Minneapolis’ KTNF, the local
FrankenNet “Air America” affiliate is a good example – but that’d really be a side issue and a diversion. The entire liberal commercial talk radio audience could fit into Rush Limbaugh’s garage with room enough left over for his cars. Limbaugh, Hannity, Bennett, Ingraham, Boortz, Miller, North, Liddy, Medved, Prager, Hewitt and even Jason Lewis are an army of 900 pound gorillas driving armored bulldozers, in ratings and financial terms. Comparing the ratings firepower of conservative and liberal talk radio is like scrimmage between the US Seventh Fleet and the Saint Paul Sailing Club.
So given the pain that the Doctrine will cause stations that run conservative talk, saying “conservatives can get equal time on liberal stations” would be like getting stripped of a Super Bowl ring, but knowing someone else gets a free toaster as a consolation prize, On a station running five 900 pound gorillas in armored bulldozers, it’d be like being forced to trade three of them for schnauzers on trikes.
It’s a win-win for liberals – – they get to water down the conservative movement’s best vehicle for free speech – and a lose-lose for conservatives. And anyone who tries to convince you there’s any other rationale to it is either uninformed, disinformed, or trying to make you one or the other.