03 August 2007

Fairness in broadcasting doctrine revived in U.S.

An encouraging development as the U.S. presidential election creeps ever closer is the revived interest in restoring the Fairness Doctrine for radio and TV broadcasting in that country. The doctrine, which required licensed broadcasters to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable and balanced manner, was introduced as policy in 1949 and incorporated into the U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulations in 1967. Although unwieldy and subject to challenge in the courts, it served to bring a measure of fair play to American broadcasting until it was abolished under the Reagan administration in 1987. Attempts by Congress to restore it were vetoed by Reagan in 1987 and George H. Bush in 1991.

Now, a number of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, are aggressively expressing interest in restoring the doctrine. The dominance of right-wing talk radio and the rampant bias of Fox News, among other things, have revealed the failure of the American "free" market in broadcasting to
afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views.

If citizens are going to put public forums in the hands of private interests, they must have assurance those interests will serve the public good. Licensed commercial broadcasters want to be trustees of public property -- the air waves -- but without responsibility.

Perhaps the Fairness Doctrine is not the best way of providing the requisite assurance.
As American journalist A.J. Liebling once pointed out, freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who are rich enough to own one. Rupert Murdoch and other oligarchs can afford to own many, and the Fairness Doctrine won't change that. The only real answer is more philosophically diversified ownership and local control. That, however, will require much more comprehensive reform than restoring the Fairness Doctrine. Meanwhile, at a time when American mass media remains the property of those few who are rich enough to own it, the doctrine would introduce at least a modicum of fair play.

So good luck to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in this initiative. Needless to say, the quality of debate of issues in the United States often affects us all, so we all have a vested interest.

Canadians also have work to do in bringing democracy to our mass media. While it is true we do have one TV and radio network that is independent of the plutocracy, and we haven't yet thrown up a journalistic wasteland like Fox,
here too, except for the CBC, TV networks and the daily press are in the pockets of a few oligarchs. We, too, should be discussing ways of assuring balance and variety in our mass media.

This is hard to do when the public forums, which in the modern world are TV networks and the daily press, are owned by a tiny special interest group that prefers to avoid such a discussion. But democracy demands no less. A new grassroots organization, Canadians for Democratic Media, is addressing itself to this very issue. They, too, deserve our support.

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