Right-Wing Broadcasters Fight Fairness

By Mitchell Kaidy

He’s Right, though you can’t say that CNN television and talk-radio host Glenn Beck is often right. Beck has been eyeing several bills underscoring the Democrats’ resolve not only to restore some form of the Fairness Doctrine on the broadcast media, but to restrict monopoly ownership—especially in the same media market.

But Beck may be accurate in fearing that some form of the Doctrine will be enacted next year. After seating a Democratic president, high on the Congressional agenda will be ending the rightwing talk-show monopoly.

Beck would not want all sides to be heard on “controversial issues of public importance,” as the law required for over four decades. Restoring the Doctrine may involve not only returning citizen access to local and national broadcast media, but reversing the ownership monopoly that entrusts hardline rightwingers and news gatherers to decide what Americans hear and see every day.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Rochester, N.Y., chair of the House Rules Committee, has moved to restore some version of the Fairness Doctrine. Later, when the terms of pro-broadcaster, anti-citizen Federal Communications Commissioners expire, Democrats will be able to appoint citizen-friendly replacements—plus a progressive chairman.

Indeed, in terms of liberating the airwaves from extremist rightwingers like Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs and other corrosive blabbers, relief has started to look possible!

Not that all the extremists will swallow their tongues. But under new legislation, listeners and viewers may be able to receive a broader range of moderate-to-liberal views. And that step may encourage other monopolized media, such as printed ones, to open themselves up to more diverse views as well.

In venting his opposition to the Fairness Doctrine, Glenn Beck twice took time to misrepresent or misunderstand and warn against it, at least once soliciting a broadcast executive to agree with him. The executive obliged.

What Beck apparently didn’t understand is that if any semblance of the Fairness Doctrine is reinstated, it can’t apply either to his cable network or to the universe of satellite broadcasting. That’s because only the airwaves are in limited supply and that’s the rationale of the both the Federal Broadcasting Act and Fairness Doctrine. Because of their unlimited capability, cable and satellite transmissions will never be regulated.

Eight decades ago when that old radical, Herbert Hoover, first proposed to license radio, government regulation was premised on the limited supply of airwaves—first on radio and decades later on broadcast television.

For over 40 years, however, the public’s rights were dominant, enforced, and ringingly validated by the US Supreme Court. In a memorable 1979 decision, Justice Byron White wrote for a unanimous Court:

“(Broadcasters contend) that the First Amendment protects their desire to use their frequencies continuously, to broadcast whatever they choose, and to exclude whomever they choose.

“No man may be prevented from saying or publishing what he thinks, or from refusing in his speech or other utterances to give equal weight to the view of his opponents.

“There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others … and to present those voices and views which are representative of his community …

“It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount. It is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, and other experiences … That right may not constitutionally be abridged either by Congress or the Federal Communications Commission.”

But it did not take long for a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, to recognize the danger that a well-informed electorate might pose to his party. Using rightwing appointees as his foils, Reagan, a former radio announcer, began dismantling both the FCC and broadcast regulation.

Notwithstanding that ringing Supreme Court declaration,  Reagan’s moves succeeded in undermining broadcast regulations both locally and nationally. An associate regulation—the Equal Time Rule with which it is frequently confused, guaranteeing federal candidates equal opportunity to argue their views, also was gutted.

But contrary to implications from the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs, the Fairness Doctrine never involved FCC politicians regulating every issue. The station licensee was authorized to decide whether, on a “controversial issue of public importance,” free time was called for—a quintessentially democratic and citizen-empowering practice.

If arbitrarily refused, a viewer or listener could turn to the FCC, and, if upheld, hearings took place in local communities. The FCC also enforced an important subset known as “local ascertainment,” requiring broadcasters to determine and air significant local issues in their programming.

To ensure compliance, the public was periodically invited to comment on their local stations’ performance. The radio/television licensing period being much shorter (three years then, eight recently), afforded the public a strong and timely influence.

By contrast to today’s monopolistic ownership, for decades the FCC refused most corporate licenses, preferring, in the spirit of the Federal Broadcasting Act of 1934, to license mostly local individuals or small companies and requiring stations to hire news staffs and to present individually-gathered news as well as community views.

Such FCC practices and policies stand in contrast to today’s stations, which mostly fence out the public, yet use the public airwaves to present pre-digested rightwing content plus moneymaking advertising, all under the FCC’s approval and indulgence.

Veteran journalist Mitchell Kaidy contributed articles with a team of reporters in 1963 which won a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Committee for Gannett Newspapers. In 1993, he won a Project Censored Award.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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