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January 21, 2007

Comments

Andrew: There's another possible problem that people might be hoping that the Fairness Doctrine would address. Namely: it sometimes seems as though liberals and conservatives inhabit two distinct universes, in which different things are true. (Did we lose the war in Vietnam because we didn't have enough will? In ConservativeLand, yes; in LiberalLand, no. Is there any plausible reason to believe that Vince Foster was murdered? In ConservativeLand of the 90s, yes; in LiberalLand of the 90s, as now, no. Do tax cuts pay for themselves? Do social programs ever work? Etc., etc.)

I think that the best argument for the fairness doctrine is: it prevents a situation in which people hear only viewpoints from within one of these universes, and thus come to regard its "facts" as obvious and unquestioned.

For the FD to solve this problem, it wouldn't have to involve many fine-grained decisions about what counts as 'the" alternative to a given position, nor would it have to be anything like successful enough to provide really good information on a regular basis. All it would have to do is provide views from both universes on a regular basis, unless it declined to provide views from either (as in the case of top 40 stations.) It therefore has fairly modest ambitions, which might well be met, and which wouldn't involve endless scrutiny and difficult decisions about what viewpoints are good enough, etc.

One problem with this, of course, is that it grants a kind of legitimacy to both universes. It also rewards political movements that succeed in creating fantasy universes for their adherents to live in.

As I've said before, I'm agnostic on the FD. But if I were going to argue for it, I think it would be on this basis.

A few vague points:

If I were to craft a law mandating fairness, I believe it would stipulate that Andrew would host whatever public affairs presentation would develop from such a law.

Thank you for the paragraph breaks. ;) I'm not saying I need sound bites, mind you, but it is nice to come up for air from time to time. Double ;)

Of course, we already have C-Span. I suppose if they had a hot babe or and/or hunk popping out of a cake every 20 minutes with prize money attached, more of the electorate would become slightly better informed.

I agree that mandating that Franken, for example, get his three hours opposite Limbaugh would not add to understanding, let alone information/data. It would be merely be subtracting that much more from understanding. I am all for Franken going back to SNL and Limbaugh announcing high school football scores at a local station, preferably in Fallujah.

Alternatively, how about nine hours of Franken for every one of Limbaugh? What we'd lose in bombast, we'd gain in droning.

Someone wrote recently, not very originally, that we live in an age of exponentially increasing data/information. The process of winnowing the data/information to reach understanding is what we lack. The filters are clogged.

It's like the four straight snowstorms piled up in my yard. I know a little bit of beneficial water will result from the snow, but could I just have the little bit of water up front and stop with the shoveling and the shivering?

By the way, I generally disagree with your premise that government, by its nature, might screw up on this issue by adding mandates. But only from the standpoint that the private sector/broadcast media has so mightily blighted the wasteland that is today's broadcast political journalism and talk/shout radio and TV and commentary that I can't tell anymore what folks mean when they think government action might make things worse, even when one considers unforeseen problems.

I think the private sector has thought of and adopted every unforeseen problem in this area.

Incidentally, sports commentary via the shouting Tony Kornheiser and the dapper, thuggish Mr. Rome needs a new law, too. The "Shut Up" Law. It's getting to the point where a guy wants to head for the bar and discuss sports calmly and intelligently.

I think the conflict that we are having with an FD is whether an FD shuts down the expression of opinions or permits the opposing opinions to be heard. I understand that the two could become functionally equivalent, in that broadcasters would be so afraid to put strong opinions on the air so as to avoid being forced to air the opposing opinion, it still seems like a reach to me.

In a nutshell for me, the problem I'm trying to solve is the granting of exclusive licenses for the use of over-the-air TV and radio spectrum almost solely to large corporations, then letting them pretend that their public service obligations are met through vehicles like Rush Limbaugh or Katie Couric.

Good post. Food for thought.

The problem as I see it is a lack of substantive information on important issues. Not so much a political party problem, as an issues-based one.

I mentioned the Fred Friendly roundtables that PBS broadcast in the 90s (and which are rerun here and there on cable). I would love to see that come back on a regular basis: a dozen or so people, all intelligent and well-informed, and of varying/opposing views, talking about a single topic for an hour. Moderated by someone also intelligent and well-informed, who knows how to keep the discussion in-depth and fun/interesting to listen to.

Such a forum doesn't limit the topic to one side/two sides, or he said/she said, or even Democratic/Republican talking points. The people have to converse intelligently, in response to retorts and challenges and what-if questions from one another and from the moderator. They have to show they know at least something about the topic other than slogans and mottos.

Andrew: One basic tenet of my beliefs regarding government is that government should act only to address specific problems. Some will no doubt disagree with this, but even those with far greater faith in the ability in government than I can probably agree that government action can cause as many problems as it solves if it is not carefully crafted (and even sometimes when it is).

I'm puzzled that you would write a second post on the Fairness Doctrine, including the above passage, again without acknowledging that the FD was designed to ameliorate problems caused by government intervention in the first place. Whether the solution is a good one merits discussion, but it just isn't productive to carry on as if the FD was imposed out of the blue on businesses that were operating without government-granted special privilege.

Or, what Phil said, more or less.

When I check Wikipedia on the fairness doctrine I can’t find anything in it to object to. Obviously I am here trusting Wikipedia to be more objective than it might be but still it seems to be giving a fair sense of what the law once was. What both of your posts on this issue seem to revolve around is a sort of visceral belief that ‘the government’ can’t do anything right , or do it well or something of that sort. I have sympathy for that position in relation to much of the pork barrel stuff most sessions of congress churn out, but on the other hand I have my sixty plus years of experience of the postal service rarely losing my mail, the park service doing an incredible job at low pay, the IRS functioning quite well in collecting taxes (not to say that the tax code has ever been coherent.)

I think that this issue, if it is one, must be bound to the dreadful repeal of the sensible limits that we used to have on ownership of the various media in local markets. Not so long ago there was a wealth of difference in the voices on the radio spectrum. Now clear channel owns maybe half of the stations in my small urban market, and what were once a number of local voices are now a monotone of corporate blandness and chicanery. The television broadcast spectrum is different since cable has affected what was once only a triumvirate of network voices. But the issue of fairness can’t be easily reconciled with the monopolization of the airwaves that has ensued since the restrictions on ownership have been removed.

The other issue that your post ignores, as far as I can see, is that of the ownership of the airwaves itself, which, as the Wiki article notes, the Supreme Court has said lies with the citizenry and not with the broadcasters. Your point of view, if I am not misrepresenting it, seems to imply that the broadcasters are being put upon and wronged in their ownership and rights, which, in my view, don’t really belong to them at all.

The problem with wanting to balance the two sides is that such thinking is always somewhat unprincipled in that it regards any given political spectrum as an adequate and comprehensive representation of the totality of possible positions towards an issue. If such a given political spectrum happens to be heavily tilted towards one side, the goalposts are simply moved and the domain of acceptable discourse is narrowed. Efforts to present such a situation as still encompassing the whole range of reasonable discourse by giving "both sides" a voice in order to establish an illusion of objectivity simply cement the bias of the whole system.

To be a bit more specific and blunt: the rest of the world thinks that the US has gone batshit crazy in the last six years and the Democrats, far from being on the left side of the political spectrum are simply regarded as the representatives of the usual center-right policies the US is known for, the world was accustomed to and which most everybody is nostalgically wishing were reinstated because at least we would know what we're at with that.

That Slate article has to be one of the most idiotic things I've read in some time.

That Slate article has to be one of the most idiotic things I've read in some time.

The responses are really good, though.

I continue to think the fairness doctrine a good idea, but I'd be very willing to revisit it after a program of breaking up media ownership consolidation in favor of aggressive support for local ownership and strong limits on the percentage of any market that can be in one set of hands.

It's sly on both sides to reconsider the FD. But more sly on one side than the other: everyone on this thread knows that the FD is a dead letter. It will never come back - it's functionally irrelevant. The uncomfortable truth is that liberals like hilzoy, and publius, and Eric Martin, and Matt Y, will digest everything good about 'conservatism', and leave its earstwhile adherents nothing. Get used to it, guys. It's over.

Picking up what is good from the old stuff and discarding the rest, I thought that was conservatism ;^)

It also rewards political movements that succeed in creating fantasy universes for their adherents to live in.

Which, arguably, is already happening.

That Slate article has to be one of the most idiotic things I've read in some time.

The responses are really good, though.

I agree. Too much emphasis is placed on the scarcity issue. Scarce or not, the airwaves require regulation to avoid chaos, as the commenters noted.

As far as the FD goes, that's too complicated for me to get into without reading and thinking about it for a really long time. The technical RF stuff is much easier.

Picking up what is good from the old stuff and discarding the rest, I thought that was conservatism ;^)

My point exactly. The GOP has ceded conservatism.

One basic tenet of my beliefs regarding government is that government should act only to address specific problems. Some will no doubt disagree with this

I disagree with it.

Requiring government to act only when something becomes a problem, and a specific problem at that, means that government is always functioning in a reactive mode, and is always responding to situations after they are already bad.

You can see some problems coming. It's not necessary to wait for them to take root and flower before acting. Every sane person and institution recognizes the wisdom of this, government should do the same.

So, before we make any decisions regarding a new fairness doctrine, we ought to ask just what the problem we're trying to solve is.

Makes sense.

The problem the fairness doctrine addresses is that the private owners of public media have a lot of control over what is published and broadcast. Absent a fairness doctrine, an actor with sufficiently deep pockets can exclude certain points of view from public discourse.

As applied back the day, the Fairness Doctrine used to work like this:

If Party A said something on broadcast media that Party B thought was wrong, Party B could ask to present the opposing point of view in the same venue.

You could imagine this spinning off into a kind of reductio ad absurdem, with Parties C through Z exercising their right to chime in, but in fact that didn't really happen. In fact, periodically somebody would do a 5 or 10 minute rebuttal of something that someone else had said. That's about it.

It wasn't a problem.

Thanks -

"The problem the fairness doctrine addresses is that the private owners of public media have a lot of control over what is published and broadcast. Absent a fairness doctrine, an actor with sufficiently deep pockets can exclude certain points of view from public discourse."

The first sentence and second aren't logically connected except for definitions of "lot of control", "sufficiently deep pockets" and "exclude" that are much different from what are actually present in the United States.

We are of an information age such that even really cranky ideas cannot be 'excluded' from public discourse. See for example price controls as a good idea. (I'm kidding. Sort of.)

Just because the ideas you like don't win doesn't mean they are being 'excluded' from the public discourse. It may very well be that they are rejected by the public discourse. (My self evidently better ideas too). :)

Which specific actor with sufficiently deep pockets do you think has successfully excluded which particular idea? Seriously, under the theory you would think it happens all the time, but I don't think I've ever heard one good example. Are we talking about the atrocious Clinton Health Care proposal or something?

If you owned the broadcast spectrum, would you sell it?

Requiring government to act only when something becomes a problem, and a specific problem at that, means that government is always functioning in a reactive mode, and is always responding to situations after they are already bad.

I have no objection to proactive measures on the part of government, as long as they lay out the problem they are attempting to fix clearly and explain in very precise terms how they will prevent said problem from occurring.

What I object to is the more typical government action: identify a generic problem, like our public schools, and come up with a 'solution' that doesn't really address the underlying problems and therefore does nothing but throw money at the problem without effect.

"What I object to is the more typical government action: identify a generic problem, like our public schools, and come up with a 'solution' that doesn't really address the underlying problems and therefore does nothing but throw money at the problem without effect."

And for many readers here, the obvious example of that is the proposed 'surge' in Iraq.

Andrew: I have no objection to proactive measures on the part of government, as long as they lay out the problem they are attempting to fix clearly and explain in very precise terms how they will prevent said problem from occurring.

What I object to is the more typical government action: identify a generic problem, like our public schools, and come up with a 'solution' that doesn't really address the underlying problems and therefore does nothing but throw money at the problem without effect.

Pardon me for being dense, but how is this any different from saying "I support thoughtful solutions that have their intended effect, and oppose the other kind"?

And while we are on the subject of the underlying problem, I guess I should acknowledge that your update represents a baby step toward addressing the point raised by Phil, grackel, and me, but, at the risk of being a pest, I still hope that you might tackle it a bit more directly.

If you owned the broadcast spectrum, would you sell it?

No, I'd lease out usage rights, leases to be renegotiated at some interval TBD.

And then of course I'd make damned sure to collect any sums owed, especially given recent events.

One might argue, Andrew, that a standing army is a violation of your principle. Most of the time there is in fact no direct threat to the country that calls for most of our military, and demonstrably we can raise and equip troops.

Of course, some of us would say that one of the things a sensible government should do is prepare for predictable recurrences. We've needed a military in the past, universal peace is postponed again, safe guess: we'll need it again. Hence having it, and having it ready. That's why we have schools, too: seeing no sign of the advent of self-teaching children, we accept that there's probably going to be a continuing need for a system that makes sure kids learn the basic skills and knowledge to be productive adults. It's why most of our fellow industrialized nations have health care: they've recognized that people continue to get sick, and that national-scale planning and provision can make more health at less of a burden.

For some of us it's all the same principle of prudent foresight and simple learning from experience.

I agree with Gromit that I was looking forward to a dialogue on this idea and am so far a bit disappointed. Off the top of my head I can think of a number of areas that the government manages on behalf of the citizenry and seems, from my limited knowledge, to do a poor job. It has in recent years given up rights to the airwaves with little oversight and for no benefit to the citizens. The same could be said for its management of much of the natural resources in the country - timber is often sold at far below market value, such that communities that happen to lie adjacent to large stands of Federal forest have come to expect the right to locally exploit the resources without question or payment; mining rights are pretty much given away as well - the applicable laws date to the nineteenth century; in many areas the same is generally true of grazing rights on Federal lands - they are sold at low cost with little oversight. In all of these areas the exploiting parties are held to very low mitigation standards as well.

I would grant that I am also not happy with the extent of meddling by the Federal government in education policy, which should plausibly be much more under local community control, but on the other hand, the Federal involvement began because of a great disparity in the allocation of resources between wealthy and poorer areas, and it isn't clear how a total lack of coordination of programs would have been more desirable - it's a complex issue.

I would grant that I am also not happy with the extent of meddling by the Federal government in education policy

Interesting point. I'd argue that lack of Federal control has been a good thing for higher education (but only because strengths of self monitoring (accreditation) has arisen from the universities themselves), but has been a problem with primary and secondary ed, where every other OECD country has some sort of broad remit to work with education.

Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm having warm feelings for No Child Left Behind, the problem is not some yes we have to have total soul crushing government takeover versus no we refuse to have government even stand on the doorstep, but accepting that there is some level at which government action is helpful.

I'd give two reason for this. One is that when large unregulated actors get involved, they have the defacto effect of government involvement without the oversight. F'rex, because California and Texas have such large populations, they virtually determine what are in textbooks.

The second is that the networks that are created are becoming all encompassing. While it is barely possible now to live off the net, and only with a rather marked decreased level of possibilities, in 20 years, it will difficult to imagine it at all. Whereas education involved training students to be suitably trained for the sorts of manufacturing tasks of an industrial society, a new sort of education has to involve helping students to learn how to leverage networks, which requires making sure that schools have access to the infrastructure, which only a government can do. The question is not yes or no to government involvement/interference, it at what granularity and to what effect.

"but has been a problem with primary and secondary ed, where every other OECD country has some sort of broad remit to work with education."

Part of the problem with education policy is we want European efficiency married to an American ideal (not lived up to much) of strongly educating even marginal students. We aren't willing to just say at 5th or 6th grade (as in Germany) that "this student has tested at vocational training levels and is thus tracked into non-college classes for the rest of the time". We just don't do that. (And I'm not saying we should. I'm fond of the American ideal. But it is going to be more expensive and have more obvious failures than a more rigid tracking system).

The point about tracking is a good one, though part of it is not simply the American ideal, it is that economic control of education was normally vested in the local community, which didn't have the resources to stream, track and provide more targeted education.

I'd also acknowledge that simply geography means that other OECD countries are able to institute technological advances without the larger costs that would be incurred in the US. When coupled with tracking, the advantage becomes substantial, in that it is easier to open up more specialized tracks through distance education than it is to create them from the whole cloth.

This question offers an interesting parallel to the question of a Fairness Doctrine, but it's probably already been too much of a threadjack to take it there.

The first sentence and second aren't logically connected except for definitions of "lot of control", "sufficiently deep pockets" and "exclude" that are much different from what are actually present in the United States.

I think you have a point. "Exclude" is way too strong.

The last several years have seen an enormous consolidation of ownership of public broadcast and print media. In many markets, the significant TV, radio, and print media are owned by a very small number of actors. Very small.

It's not at all unusual for the owners of media outlets to exert a lot of influence on editorial policy. So, in those markets, the available range of opinion through the major outlets is correspondingly limited.

This often has little to do with any kind of malign intent to monopolize the "marketplace of ideas". It's usually all about the Benjamins. The effect is the same, however.

What the Fairness Doctrine does is, to some degree, redress this by requiring print and broadcast media to give a hearing to points of view other than those endorsed by the owners of the channel.

It does not mandate what you can say. It does not, and in practice did not, limit opinion or editorial comment. It simply requires you to give opposing points of view equal time.

It's not a very large burden.

I have no objection to proactive measures on the part of government, as long as they lay out the problem they are attempting to fix clearly and explain in very precise terms how they will prevent said problem from occurring.

OK with me.

What's the problem? In lots of markets, ownership of print and broadcast media is held by a very small number of entities.

Often, those entities limit the range of opinion that can be expressed on channels they own.

This is bad for public discourse on matters that touch on the public interest.

The solution is the Fairness Doctrine, which requires the owners of those channels to give equal time to other points of view.

In practice, this did not lead to a decline in the expression of opinion or editorial comment. Lots of opinions and editorial comments were offered during the reign of the FD.

In practice, what it did lead to was other points of view having their say. This was, on the whole, a good thing.

Thanks -

In practice, this did not lead to a decline in the expression of opinion or editorial comment. Lots of opinions and editorial comments were offered during the reign of the FD.

I've heard claims on this in both directions. Some say it had no effect. Others claim it kept media from considering any opinions. It would be good to have some facts to work with, rather than people's memories.

Well, not facts about what happened, but some more precise information about the Dem efforts is here, which references HR 3302. So perhaps Andrew was correct to point to this, though I would note that Kucinich is not among the bill's sponsors. Of the 6 points listed in the legislation, what are acceptable/tolerable to folks here? Also, what does everyone think of Hinchley's point that the run up to the war highlights some of the problems of a too concentrated media?

Hinchley is chair of the Future of American Media Caucus, which includes,
# Bernie Sanders (I-VT), co-chair
# David Price (D-NC), co-chair
# Jay Inslee (D-WA), co-chair
# Sherrod Brown (D-OH), co-chair
# Louise Slaughter (D-NY), co-chair
# Diane Watson (D-CA), member
# Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), member

However, I don't know how far they are going to get as they don't even have a webpage...

"I've heard claims on this in both directions. Some say it had no effect. Others claim it kept media from considering any opinions. It would be good to have some facts to work with, rather than people's memories."

I'd like to note that this is a magnificent, and classic, example of the way that simply putting forth a lot of claims can obscure the truth for an honest, ignorant (no offense, but by at least hypothetical stipulation), observer.

I'm just going to chime in with Thullen and Andrew with the opinion that the fairness doctrine is unenforceable. There's no way that balance can be had on any meaningful basis.

It would be good to have some facts to work with, rather than people's memories.

Good point. Sadly, regarding this, memories are all I have to offer.

One thing that is true is that, back in the days of the FD, we did not have the multi billion dollar venom-as-entertainment industry that we have now. I'd be quite happy to turn that particular clock back.

Thanks -

One could suggest, contra to Fledermaus, that the purpose of an renewed FD is not to bring balance, but to have networks engage in a little more self-censorship. I can understand how this could be a very very bad thing, my impression of the current climate lines up with Russell's, and a little moderation is needed. If someone wants to argue that an FD would not get broadcast media to watch themselves a bit, the counter example would be Janet Jackson's nipple :^)

I'm just going to chime in with Thullen and Andrew with the opinion that the fairness doctrine is unenforceable. There's no way that balance can be had on any meaningful basis.

At the risk of arguing from possibly faulty memory, I'd like to try to explain what it is we are actually talking about when we talk about the FD.

As the FD was actually applied, nobody from the FCC stood around counting the minutes given to each point of view. As actually applied, if a TV or radio station broadcast an opinion that somebody disagreed with, that person could ask for a chance to rebut, and the license holder was obliged to grant that time. If the license holder thought it was a frivolous request, they could refuse. If the requestor really insisted, it might go to the FCC for a decision. Most times, by far, it didn't come to that.

The cases where the legitimacy of the FD was upheld mostly had to do with personal attacks on particular people, and with explicit political editorializing. As a practical matter, stations weren't expected to give equal time every time somebody simply expressed an opinion on air.

"Equal time" also did not translate to actual equal number of minutes. Folks who wanted to make a rebuttal generally got a few minutes to respond to a particular point that they objected to.

The FD was a policy of the FCC. It was not a law. It didn't apply to print, and AFAIK was never applied to cable. It applied only to those resources controlled by the FCC, which is to say, electromagnetic spectrum. Those resources are, in fact, finite. If you broadcast in my area on frequency 89.1, I cannot also do so. I have to broadcast on a different frequency, and even in this day and age, there are only so many of them.

The FD, back in the days when it ruled the airwaves, was simply never that big of a deal. Anyone could say whatever they wanted to, and actually contra my own comment upthread, they did. The only requirement was that the holder of the broadcast license had to allow rebuttal if a reasonable request for rebuttal was made.

No requirement for 50/50, or 33/33/33, or 25/25/25/25 balance. No extra restriction on what could, or could not, be said. No "big brother" examining every statement made.

If you held a license for a TV or radio station, and somebody made an editorial statement on a matter of public interest on your frequency, if someone else made a reasonable request to rebut, you had to let them.

That's it. No more, no less.

Thanks -

It is resolved -- more nudity and less venom.

The world feels more fair already! ;)

Fledermaus, I'm not exactly agreeing with Andrew on the pointlessness of decreeing fairness, however it is done. LJ used a very important word up thread -- "granularity". How much doctrinal fairness would need to be enforced (Russell answers this, I see, on preview) from on high so that political issues could be presented and discussed in a generally fair manner? Thar's the rub. I don't think the culture is in the mood for such calibration.

(Hey, bril, I'm going to contradict myself immediately here and say that the culture may be growing weary of the crap that passes for "news" and "political commentary" from the corporate media and might put up with a good deal of calibration. A hypocrite at work!)

During the Reign of Terror in France, the guillotine was a hell of crowd-pleaser because most of its victims went limply and quietly to their deaths. It wasn't until one particular noblewoman (can't remember her name, it's been so long since we dated) went berserk with grief and fear as she trundled to her fate in the wagon, that the crowd went quiet, quickly dispersed, and within a very short time, ratings declined precipitously.

Unfortunately, the culture wants what it wants, and fairness may not be on the menu just yet. The movie "Network" was prophetic in this regard. Whether Howard Beale was conservative or liberal was not the point; he was a train wreck and who could take their eyes off him? Well, everyone could once the other station came up with a bigger train wreck.

Then we shoot Beale on screen to wring the last ratings points we can from Howard Beale -- yesterday's commodity.

Personally, I'd prefer a dour BBC type, from the days of yore, dryly interviewing opposing policy wonks on a badly lit set and in black and white. They could all be nude from the waist down, under the table, which would add a certain suspense to the proceedings for those with short attention spans.

I think the venom factor is cultural and the media business decided to give us what we (the collective market) want. When Elvis Presley absentmindedly swiveled a hip during a performance way back when, the women screamed and fainted. Right, make that a regular part of the act, said Gene Vincent to his hips. When one of the Beatles shook his head and hair during a middle eight in 1963, without thinking about it, the crowd surged and money fell out of their pockets. Right, move the head-shaking to the beginning of the song, thought Dave Clark to himself. When Rush Limbaugh cranked bombast up to the hilt, he tapped an anger artery (someone get me a tourniquet) and Bill O'Reilly glimpsed his new career.

Interestingly, only the Beatles of the above examples had the sense (hey, I loved the head-shaking) to voluntarily back off from the cheap trick, because the main thing -- the songs -- that cool middle-eight change to the minor chord in "From Me To You" -- couldn't be heard anymore.

Elvis, the hip-swivelling movie automaton, Rush, and O'Reilly require a Fairness Doctrine, because I can't hear the music anymore.

Throw in the WWF and reality TV (in which the most pathetic and banal of the human frailties becomes the hook) for more of the culture wanting what it wants and getting it good and hard.


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