New media make Fairness Doctrine obsolete, efforts to revive it futile

The Baltimore Sun

Like witch doctors conjuring up zombies in a bad B-movie, certain members of Congress are trying to bring the Fairness Doctrine back from the grave. Forget it, folks. Changing times already have put a stake through its heart.

I don't say that as an enemy of fairness or balance. I say it as a realist and a former broadcast industry insider who has seen media and political giants humbled by the new media.

My education began when I ran the community affairs department at a CBS-owned TV station in Chicago for two years in the early 1980s. The three big networks were losing alarming chunks of their audience to new time-devouring innovations as varied as video games, cable TV networks and 24-kilobyte personal computers.

The good news for broadcasters was that government deregulation was beginning to take hold. The Fairness Doctrine, a Federal Communications Commission policy, required broadcasters to air contrasting views on controversial issues. The balance didn't have to be 50-50, but stations had to make an effort.

In 1987, the FCC decided that the policy had the effect of frightening broadcasters away from taking on controversy. With the emergence of media alternatives such as cable television, the doctrine was no longer needed, the FCC decided. No problem. Major broadcasters valued their licenses too highly to risk upsetting their local audiences. In fact, network TV would broadcast controversial guests and topics, as long as we aired them during late-night "public-affairs time" and on the weekends.

That was then. The explosion of political talk radio and cable TV turned upsetting the public into a highly profitable enterprise. Meanwhile, the public-affairs time we once cherished on the local stations has been gobbled up a half-hour at a time by infomercials for tummy tucks, golden-oldie rock CDs and retirement homes in Florida.

Now, for the first time since a failed congressional attempt in 1993, the Fairness Doctrine is receiving a new, if feeble, chance to return from the grave.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who is running for president, wants to hold hearings to revive the policy. Media consolidation has made it harder for some voices to be heard, he says. Besides, with Democrats back in power in the House, he'd like Democrats to try to restore the doctrine simply because they can. Maybe.

Conservative talk-radio hosts, eager to talk about their oppression, cried foul. A measure by Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a former radio talk-show host, to block the FCC from reviving the doctrine passed 309-115 in June.

But support for the doctrine came from a less liberal corner when the Senate's immigration bill died under a lava flow of opposition that was inflamed by right-wing radio.

"Talk radio is running America," Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi fumed to The New York Times. "We have to deal with the problem."

That's gratitude for you. I don't remember Mr. Lott complaining about reining in those talk-radio folks when they were on his side.

Support for the Fairness Doctrine has come from Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

In fact, the alleged virtues and evils of the Fairness Doctrine have been greatly exaggerated.

Liberals should be pleased that even the giant megaphone of conservative talk radio could not save Republicans from the thumping that voters gave them at the polls last November. But it also could never guarantee that people are going to listen to your point of view, no matter how often you offer it.

The survival of our democracy requires tolerance not only for your smart adversaries but also for the willfully ignorant. Whether there's a Fairness Doctrine or not, some people will choose to stick with only one point of view, promoted by their favorite gasbag and uninterrupted by any challenges to their cherished prejudices.

You can lead people to facts, but you can't make them think.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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