The Fairness Doctrine, or at least talk of a reimposed Fairness Doctrine, just won’t go away. It was finally killed off in 1987 but the current Democratic Congress has been making periodic noises about bringing it back.
The big question now seems to be what would happen under a President Obama. Would he actively support a return of the doctrine? Would he accede to a Congress controlled by his Democratic friends who put a Fairness Doctrine bill in front of him? Would he dare (or bother) to go against his congressional allies and veto such a bill?
All we know for sure has been ferreted out by the hard-working John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable. He reported back on June 25 that Obama’s press secretary, Michael Ortiz, told him that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," and that the candidate sees the issue as “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."
On Sept. 18, however, George Will opined that an Obama-led government would bring back the Fairness Doctrine. Will wrote:
“Until Ronald Reagan eliminated it in 1987, that regulation discouraged freewheeling political programming by the threat of litigation over inherently vague standards of ‘fairness’ in presenting ‘balanced’ political views. In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide. Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats. Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives’ dominance.”
Will’s comments have stirred the pot once again, particularly among right-leaning blogs where much of the speculation and hand-wringing takes place.
In support of Will’s assertion are two factors. The first is that Obama need not actively support a reimposition of the doctrine to sign a bill pushed by his fellow Democrats. The second is that his press secretary also told Eggerton that Obama supports “media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets" – in other words, the traditional Democratic media-policy platform in which the Fairness Doctrine plank would fit snugly.
The Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea for a lot of reasons. It should be allowed to rest in peace. Sen. McCain gets that, and has co-sponsored legislation to keep it dead. Sen. Obama says he opposes a new Fairness Doctrine.
Yet George Will can be a hard person to bet against. In the case of Obama and the Fairness Doctrine, however, I’m hoping Will is wrong.