One of life's most interesting, often jolting, experiences is to find
out that well-intentioned action can have serious, unintended
So it is with many public policy initiatives.
For example, in an effort to broaden home ownership, Congress forced
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to securitize mortgages from too many
high-risk, low-income owners. The result was a collapse of confidence
in these two institutions, triggering tragic failures in the financial
services industry and a collapse of the stock market. Now, many people
are losing their homes, a large number of employees in the financial
services sector are out of a job, most retirement 401(k)s are worth
much less than before, and taxpayers are stuck with huge liabilities.
The so-called Fairness Doctrine is another such a case.
It seems plausible, even fair, that people should be afforded an
opportunity to receive communication about both (or several) sides of
controversial issues. No one contends with the right of people to
propound any side of any issue. That's the First Amendment. The rub
comes when government, in the name of fairness, tries to force some
providers of information to present "balanced" views.
The so-called Fairness Doctrine was initiated by the Federal Communications Commission
in 1967, but was ended by President Reagan's FCC in 1987. The doctrine
required broadcasters to deal with controversial issues of public
importance, but to do so in a way that provided contrasting points of
view. Note that the doctrine applied only to radio and TV broadcasters.
It did not apply to newspapers or magazines, nor would it have applied
to blogs and other personal electronic communications.
The consequences of the so-called Fairness Doctrine are
well-documented. When it was imposed, public discussion and debate
about controversial issues over the air waves dried up. When the
doctrine was ended, the reverse ensued. Now some broadcasts present
various sides of issues, but we also have Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity,
Gordon Liddy and others on the right, and Air America, Thom Hartmann,
Bill Press and others on the left. With the so-called Fairness Doctrine
we had virtually no broadcast communication about controversial issues.
Without the doctrine, we have a thriving, wholesome discussion and
In effect, the so-called Fairness Doctrine amounts to what my friend, Barbara Comstock, has labeled the Censorship Doctrine!
Why does the Censorship Doctrine work that way?
The reason is quite simple: broadcasters are so intimidated by the
FCC, in fear that their licenses won't be renewed, they eschew anything
controversial. So, you get news, music, comedy and drama - just as long
as there is no controversy. Those looking for information and debate
over public policies are simply out of luck.
Put yourself in the position of the broadcaster: your very existence
is dependent on the FCC's renewing your license every few years. And
the FCC says you must offer "balanced" programming. What does this
If you have a call-in show and do your best to "balance" the
discussion, what do you do when the callers are all conservative? Or
all liberal? What if you have a personality emceeing a show who has a
strong point of view and you invite experts on to present the "other
side" and no experts are available? And will you choose the "right"
experts? What if the FCC says you should have chosen different experts?
What if an issue you think is not controversial turns out to be the
subject of protest to the FCC? For the broadcaster, discretion is the
better part of valor. A mandate to present issues in a "balanced" way
turns out to be censorship!
Right now, there is increasing interest in imposing such a
Censorship Doctrine. Although polls show that the public favors
balanced presentations, most do not realize that in the interest of
getting the "other side" they will get neither. Some in Congress also
support the imposition of a Censorship Doctrine. Perhaps they think it
would result in balanced presentation of controversial issues. But one
must suspect that their real motive is to censor public criticism of