The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The Web and the “fairness doctrine”

I have found myself on the Republican National Committee e-mail list somehow, I suspect it was the result of a well meaning family member or something. Usually I click and delete, but the latest email (and these things often double as fund-raising calls, so putting two and two together I assume these are sent out what is considered the party base) was a call from John Ensign to get people to complain about Democrats trying to bring back the FCC “fairness doctrine” so that there are other points of view on the airwaves.

The email had a link and you can read more about what they’re pushing, but the gist of it is threefold:

1. Liberal talk radio cannot compete on the radio financially, and so forcing stations to air the content forces stations to lose money

2. Forcing stations to air liberal content is tantamount to censorship of conservative views because it limits the unfettered broadcast of conservative ideas. This violates First Amendment rights.

3. The Internet has increased the “marketplace of ideas” to the point that liberal views exist online, thus the Fairness Doctrine is not necessary.

I’m not going to get overly political on dissecting this, but it has a couple relevant talking points that are important to our field. The reason here is obvious: Even if this is merely political rhetoric (which it is), it references some media values here that could make it sound “right on” to the average viewer/listener/reader.

The first point is the subtle tie that is made with the first two points, that of unfettered capitalism and the First Amendment. What actually happens in that case is that Milton’s “marketplace of ideas” concept becomes a LITERAL marketplace, where speech is bought and sold. Milton was speaking more in terms of town squares and public squares, and the notion that the public can collectively come to decide on issues after a robust discussion. If discussion is tied to profit, then at some point the discussion will by definition become less robust because the more profitable discussant has a leg up. Minority views might be so because they are wrong, but they are not always wrong. Anyhow, even Milton said we need the wrong views as much as the right ones. This is a question of democracy, not capitalism. The health of our government institutions cannot rest on profitability.

Second, and more to the point of this blog, is the point that the Web pretty much negates the need for the fairness doctrine. This seems to assume that media are pretty much created equal, but it forgets some huge differences between the Web and radio/television. The Web is vast and limitless; if I want to publish something online, I can do it in 5 minutes (and for free!). The airwaves are scarce; if I want to broadcast a viewpoint, I need money, and a lot of it.

The fact is, the lynchpin of the Fairness Doctrine always was that the airwaves are a public trust because they are scarce. To say that the Web balances out this negative is a huge reach, because one voice on the radio is but one of a few compared to how a voice fits into the entirety of the Web. This is not to say that radio is better than the Web, obviously. I am merely saying they are very different in terms of reach and scope.

Obviously Ensign is spouting rhetoric you’d expect from a party man, but the casual mangling of some imporant press values affects us all.

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July 26, 2007 - Posted by | Jeremy Littau

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