Fairness Doctrine Redux?

It comes as no surprise that Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most partisan politician in America, has indicated his support for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.  Neither is there any surprise in the reasoning he conjures up for the purpose.

As he told Fox News last week: “The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine want the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to limit pornography on the air.  I am for that….  But you can’t say, ‘government hands off in one area’ to a commercial enterprise but you are allowed to intervene in another.  That’s not consistent.”

A piece published here in August (Conservatives and the Media) warned conservatives of the danger in promoting governmental restrictions on indecent speech because it would undermine their efforts in opposition to governmental restrictions like the Fairness Doctrine.

“Through [his] Media Research Center," it said, "[Brent] Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against the … [Fairness Doctrine], but because of the pro-regulation stance of his Parents Television Council there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.”

Senator Schumer’s comments breathe  a kind of Frankensteinian life into that warning.  Moreover, there is both a logical and precedential plausibility to what he says.  If government can regulate some kinds of speech, why can’t it regulate other kinds of speech?

The simplest and best answer to that question, of course, is that government shouldn’t be regulating any kind of constitutionally protected speech — a point that Senator Schumer is smart enough to understand but not honorable enough to acknowledge.

For all the talk of it, the view from here is that it is unlikely that, in the end, Democrats and “progressives” will push for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine per se — just too much trouble to promote the thing openly.  More likely they will try to find another, more opaque way of accomplishing the same result.

As reported in Broadcasting & Cable, Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) may have inadvertently suggested as much.  “Asked if he would support reimposition of the rule, which was jettisoned as unconstitutional in 1987 and is credited with the rise of conservative talk radio, Cardin did not rule out some review of media coverage.  ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to it in the manner in which you are explaining it,’ he said.  ‘I think we do look at making sure that our system is not biased….’”

Conservatives and the Media

For maybe 50 years, self-described conservatives have been alienated from the dominant U.S. media — the Big Three TV networks, big-city newspapers, the national newsweeklies.  This alienation of a group that comprises as much as a third of the electorate has provided opportunities for such as talk radio companies, and the FOX News Channel, to pick up the pieces.

And even on the Internet conservatives are having success.  They may not have the political influence on the Republicans that the “netroots” have on the Democrats, but websites like the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics are highly influential and display a clearly discernible right-of-center profile.

With this kind of success — owing entirely to the marketplace and deregulation — one would think that conservatives would be very chary about doing anything that might invite government control over media content.  And perhaps some are, but the loudest voices belong to those whose actions and agenda invite precisely this.

Take, for instance, the empire created by L. Brent Bozell.  From entertainment programming to journalism, the House that Brent Built gives voice to a brand of conservative criticism that spans issues from “broadcast indecency” to “liberal media bias.”

And if this were all that they did, there would be no qualms here about the Bozell-founded Parents Television Council (PTC) or his Media Research Center.  Media criticism, after all, is itself free speech.  But it isn’t all that they do.  Through organized letter writing campaigns, position papers, and filings at the FCC, the PTC actively encourages both legislative and regulatory action against “broadcast indecency.”

That this position contradicts one of the central tenets of modern conservatism — the imperative of limited government — is something that Bozell himself has acknowledged to be a conservative critique of his organization.  Alas, inconsistency (some would call it hypocrisy) of this sort does not weigh so heavily on the gentleman as to cause him to reconsider.

Like the late Reed Irvine, another conservative media critic who came before him, Bozell apparently believes that government regulation isn’t always a bad thing.  In Irvine’s case, the classic example of this was his support of the Fairness Doctrine.  Irvine believed that, without the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives would be bereft of any influence over the liberal sensibilities of broadcast journalists.  Of course we now know that repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led directly to the dominance in talk radio not of liberals but of conservatives!

In demonstration of the tenacity of history, this same Fairness Doctrine may yet prove to be Brent Bozell’s undoing too.  This, because these days all the talk, endorsed by such as the Speaker of the House, is of the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine.  Through the Media Research Center, Bozell is mobilizing his troops to fight against any such plan, but because of the pro-regulation stance of his PTC there are real questions about how much credibility his anti-Fairness Doctrine activities will have.

Oh, he will, one assumes, be able to organize a letter writing campaign, but such campaigns don’t equate  with credibility in the same way, and for the same reason, that power doesn’t equate with integrity.