Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine: How would it work today?

Many people remember the days of the Fairness Doctrine as a period when they didn't even know there was such a thing as the Fairness Doctrine. Here in New York, those of us who were avid listeners to the two Barrys, i.e., Gray and Farber, remember both hosts presenting guests with divergent points of view, but recall no hysteria between "rightwing" or "leftwing." Farber, the self-identified conservative, would amiably offer some preachments about "misguided liberals," but never in a meanspirited way. Gray, the one most listeners considered liberal, counted among his friends and radio guests as many people on one side of the political fence as the other. There was enough neutral, non-political programming to take one's mind off the hot issues of the day. On none of the stations could you find 24/7 political rants.

We're familiar with today's arguments concerning the Fairness Doctrine. The general consensus that seems to prevail goes something like: "Keep government regulation out and let the market decide." But what happens if there is more going on here that is perpetuating this one-sided on-air political dog-and-pony show than just the "market?"

Rich McClear, who was a radio station manager, offers his recollections about that period when the Fairness Doctrine was in place, on the New York Radio Message Board (12/09/09). Although he claims that there were occasionally complaints, his recollection of the Fairness Doctrine as basically a benign, unobtrustive instrument is similar to that of many New York listeners. He titled his remarks, "Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine Now!"
• • •

I managed stations in the day of the fairness doctrine, and while I was happy to see it go I have to admit that it was never much of a burden. There was no big brother monitoring me. The fairness doctrine meant that I kept the whole idea of balance in my mind running the station. The doctrine did not call for stopwatch equal time. But somewhere in my program day I had to allow for other points of view.

The biggest complaints came from the right. I ran a station in a pulp mill town and at times when I had Congressman Miller or Senator Tsongas on talking about clear cutting I would get a call saying I was biased, violating the fairness doctrine. I could easily show that I also had our Alaska delegation on who had the pro development point of view. Sometimes it was a pain, but never a major pain.

Now that it is gone I realize how mistaken I was in wanting it to go. The airwaves are public property. A licensee is an agent of the government, in a way, managing a public resource. For that licensee to systematically deny certain points of view on the public's air is tantamount to a government agent censoring the airwaves.

Bring back the fairness doctrine. Now I will probably have my station's NAB membership canceled.


The Flawed Debate about the Fairness Doctrine

Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine

Forget the Fairness Doctrine

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