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Monday, July 16, 2007

The Fairness Doctrine

Publius comes out arguing against a return to the "fairness" doctrine for broadcast radio and TV. As you may recall, under the "fairness" doctrine stations were required to offer more or less equal time to opposing opinions whenever the station offered an opinion of its own.

I'm inclined to agree with much of what Publius says against the doctrine. Here, for example, is a part of his argument:

Second, even assuming it’s a good idea in the abstract, the fairness doctrine was -- and would again be -- impossible to administer. For those who disagree with me on the merits of the policy itself, you still have to explain how such a policy could possibly be administered fairly, and without excessive chilling effects. If the rule had real teeth, compliance would require excessive bureaucratic oversight (susceptible to capture or strategic behavior).

Third, and I hope this is more novel, the notion of “fairness” reinforces the assumption that there are two equally correct and acceptable sides on all issues. That assumption, however, is one of the reasons why the public (including myself) is often so misinformed about important issues, particularly scientific ones. For instance, under a fairness doctrine, would every segment on global warming require Senator Inhofe to provide a rebuttal? If Marty Lederman appeared on Chris Matthews to denounce torture, would that (again) require Inhofe to express his outrage at the outrage? If someone argued on TV that only sane people should be Senators, does that . . . well, you get the point.

Yet, I think back to the days when the doctrine was in force, and I don't recall anything like the problems Publius warns us about. In fact, as I recall, it's main effect was to discourage radio and TV stations from offering much in the way of opinions of their own, and when they did so, it forced them to clearly labeled it as opinion. That might be better than the "opinion camouflaged as news" that so many (particularly Faux News) offer up these days. And, it would not impede fact checking, so long as the facts were facts. Facts and news are not opinion and, hence, not subject to scrutiny under the doctrine.

So, I find myself on the fence on this one, and, actually leaning towards the opposite side from Publius.


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