I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion on the potential for and desireability of a return of the Fairness Doctrine sponsored by the Marquette University Law School student chapter of the Federalist Society. The panelists were Chicago radio talk show host Guy Benson and local talk show host Charlie Sykes in “opposition” and Marquette Communications Professor Eric Ugland and local talker Joel McNally, who were in “favor” or, at least, not resolutely opposed.
The Fairness Doctrine was a set of FCC policies that required broadcast stations to address matters of public interest (an aspect that was not enforced) and that required some measure of even-handedness in addressing such issues. Those of us who are a little older will recall news broadcasts in which, usually at the tail end, someone was presented to give “equal time” in opposition to an earlier editorial view expressed by the station. This was, as middle-aged fans of Saturday Night Live will recall, the premise for Gilda Radner’s hard-of-hearing Emily Latilla, who was brought on to offer “responsible opposing view points.” (“What’s all this fuss I hear about an eagle rights amendment?”)
The Supreme Court upheld the doctrine over a constitutional challenge in the late ’60s, but it was abandoned during the latter years of the Reagan administration.
Abandonment of the doctrine is generally credited for the explosion of news talk formats among AM radio stations, the overwhelming majority of which have a conservative bent. Some Democrats, including, most notably, Nancy Pelosi, have talked about bringing it back.
I understand that the audio will be available on the Law School’s website, so I won’t provide a blow by blow here. Messrs. Sykes and Benson opposed the return of the doctrine and Dr. Ugland, while not supporting its return, tried to explain its underlying rationale. Mr. McNally, while not calling for its return, seemed to advocate some type of mandated ideological balance in news talk formats.
My own view is that this debate died at about the same time as the careers of Boy George and Duran Duran. We are about to see the explosion of Internet radio, a phenomenom that will end arguments from scarcity, eliminate traditional barriers to entry, and make regulation a virtual impossibilty. Who, out of the coming cacophony, actually gets heard will be a key question, but, quite apart from whether it should be done, it’s hard to see how that question can be addressed by regulation.
I do wonder how this will affect our common life. A few years back, I asked my son, who is a musician, why no contemporary popular music groups are as big as the mega acts of the Baby Boom generation. I suppose that my unstated implication was that they don’t make ’em like they used to.
His response was that music today consists of a far greater number of diverse artists who enjoy intense popularity among smaller fan bases. Today, he said, you get precisely what you want.
We seem to be on our way to the same state of affairs with respect to news and opinion. You get precisely what you want. That may be a wonderful thing when you’re looking for techno-influenced thrash/folk rock. But it may be less desireable when you are looking for information on common questions of public policy.