'Fairness Doctrine' is not only concern for free speech

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It's already happening. When it comes to curbing media free speech in America, the heat is on. But despite real concerns about a return to the old so-called Fairness Doctrine, other moves are already being made, making it unnecessary.

The Fairness Doctrine was implemented in 1948 in order to ensure varied on-air viewpoints on important issues. In a day when there were thousands fewer stations in the USA, it seemed like a good idea. It was a system that required stations to offer both sides of every key issue in the "public interest."

As time passed it clearly wasn't fair or good doctrine, making it a nightmare for stations to monitor and expensive to implement. Restrictions also made for pretty dull show hosts. Many outlets decided to avoid doing talk formats altogether.

In the 1980s because media choices had greatly expanded, President Ronald Reagan repealed the law. There were many more stations, more diverse options and a huge impact from television and print. The end of the archaic Fairness Doctrine allowed an explosion in talk radio shows, including numerous Christian teaching and talk formats, and for the first time, giving listeners a real ideological choice. Since TV news channels and newspapers were—and are—mostly left wing, radio became a balancing force of its own, without government meddling in content or perspective. Conservative, liberal and middle views were aired, too, but the marketplace soon determined right-of-center perspective was most popular.

That success became a problem for the left in America, leading to recent talk about a return to the doctrine, despite availability of even more information in media, especially with the rapid growth and dominance of the Internet. Because of this, in recent months fellow talk hosts have been rightfully concerned about new attempts to muzzle conservatives.

That won't be necessary. Since the markets are in turmoil and there have been huge drops in advertising revenue, media companies are already dramatically cutting back on local hosts. Some are flipping formats to less "controversial" content such as music.

Other forms of regulation will also come into play. Under the Barack Obama administration, new appointees to the Federal Communications Commission will work behind the scenes to change broadcast rules in order to push out conservative station owners under the guise of improving "diversity" in ownership. Just as a president can make sweeping changes with executive orders, the FCC can squeeze station operators in a variety of ways.

There won't be a return to anything called "The Fairness Doctrine." It will morph into new more subtle restrictions and definitions.


The public square.
There's also the current flap over what's appropriate to debate in the public square. I'm not referring to issues regarding decency. The FCC already has power to control obscene material from being aired. With a few exceptions, stations and hosts in all media are becoming more reluctant to offer strong opinions, especially when it comes to criticizing the new president. There's plenty of "self-editing" going on. People don't want to "go there." There's pressure to be politically correct and to avoid offending anyone by taking an opposing point-of-view. Even late-night comedians are timid about any content that might appear to be anything but glowing when it comes to the new administration.

Increased hyper-sensitivity to accusations of "hate speech" will also be a concern. Just look at how difficult it is for religious broadcasters in Canada today. And my friend, Mark Steyn, was hauled before a tribunal for calling Islamic extremist terrorists, well, "terrorists." All it will take for increased stifling of American speech is for something horrible to happen, followed by a "connection" between the responsible evil doer and his or her listening habits. Imagine what would happen if a bad guy turned out to be a big Rush fan. In today's heated political environment, the political spin would immediately shift to the need to curb talk radio "for your safety."


What do we do?
What can you do to ensure free speech in America? Call your members of Congress and demand that the airwaves remain open for all points of view, not just those of conservatives. Let them know you oppose any expansion of government control that limits information and First Amendment rights. And, please, remember it's fine to disagree without being disagreeable.

Most importantly, we must all stand up for what we believe every day. When it comes to expressing free ideas and personal faith, on or off the air, the pressure's on. And it will increase if we ignore what's already happening.


Mark Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. Email: mark@marklarson.com.

Published, April 2009