Free Press: Consolidation, Not Fairness Doctrine, Bred Conservative Talk

Free Press says it was media consolidation, not the scrapping of the fairness doctrine, that led to the rise in conservative talk radio, and that "bringing it back won't fix the imbalance on the airwaves."

The media activist group is concerned that the current debate over the doctrine, which it opposes, has become a distraction from the proper focus on public interest policies it does support, like ownership rules, localism and diversity.

In an e-mail to reporters containing its policy brief entitled The Fairness Doctrine Distraction, Free Press points out that the fairness doctrine controversy has heated up because a "handful of Democrats" have publicly entertained its return.

Free Press argues that the doctrine was untenable because it "put the federal government in charge of judging fairness in political speech."  It also said that reinstating the doctrine would not create greater viewpoint diversity--on of the new administration's policy goals--and that even if it were reinstated, it would likely be overturned.

The doctrine, which was scrapped by the FCC in 1987 as unconstitutional, required broadcasters to seek out the other side of controversial issues of public importance.

But Free Press' concern extends beyond the doctrine to the policies it does not want broad-brushed out of the debate.  
"Congress should recognize that the Fairness Doctrine and the content regulation it represents are in no way tied to other public service obligations required by the Communications Act or proposals designed to increase speech in broadcasting and new media."

FCC Commisioner Robert McDowell, for one, has suggested that some of the FCC's ownership proposals, including creating community advisory boards, could be a stealth form of reintroducing the doctrine.

Free Press argues that the underlying call to bring the doctrine back is based on the false assumption that its demise was the main cause of the rise in conservative talk radio. Free Press lays that at the feet of 1990's consolidation and the new market for nationally syndicated product.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.