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A Dying Ideal-Part Two

July 21, 2008

What is "Advocacy"?

Human expression is a galaxy of interactions. Short political commercials or public service announcements are a bland form of advocacy, but this is the weak broth on the menu of advocacy. Johnny Carson mocked the Fairness Doctrine. He used to portray a bumpkin with a hunter's cap who presented "equal time" which was itself a risible condemnation of the position which the bumpkin advocated. Nominal advocacy of a position done maliciously can be the most effective form of advocacy for the opposite position.

Perhaps that should be the answer to radio networks asked to have an equal amount of time for liberals to balance conservatives on talk radio is to have the equivalent of Johnny Carson's bigoted bumpkin "advocating" the liberal position. Who will regulate what is advocacy and what is satire? Would a nasty, dull witted liberal with a high, squeaky, nasally voice on his own radio program be "advocacy" of the liberal position? Who would answer that question?

Defining the categories in which we need to be fair is like stacking marbles and defining how we are fair is like herding cats: Both are profoundly subjective and will be impossibly narrow in practice because the universe of human thought and speech is as broad as the human race.

Expanding the Doctrine

A threshold question in discussing a fairness doctrine for talk radio is this: Why should any government fairness doctrine include just talk radio? The legal hook for the current "Fairness Doctrine" is federal regulation of broadcast bandwidth, but the FCC regulates more than just commercial radio broadcast bandwidth. The fairness doctrine has always included television and there is every reason that a revitalized fairness doctrine includes commercial television as well. This should not just include news programs like CNN, but entertainment as well. Nearly all the real advocacy of ideological biases is in commercial television is in entertainment, not news.

A resurrected Fairness Doctrine would require that television entertainment programs which mocked Christianity would be balanced by programs by the same network which promoted Christianity. It would require that programs which ridiculed free markets be balanced by programs which championed free markets. NBC, ABC and CBS, under a real "Fairness Doctrine" would not be allowed to have a hard ideological agenda permeate their entertainment programs. After all, much of Rush Limbaugh is entertainment, not news - are his enemies willing to exempt those parts of his program which are entertainment and not news? Who will decide what is entertainment and what is news?

The Fairness Doctrine should go beyond commercial television. Why exempt PBS and NPR, both of whom also use the people's bandwidth and also use the people's money, from being fair? Any fairness doctrine must also include such servants of the public as well as private companies. So the news, the documentaries, the entertainment of PBS and NPR should include as much advocacy of conservative Judeo-Christian values as advocacy of trendy Leftist themes.

But that is only the beginning of a robust "Fairness Doctrine" in America. The hook for the "Fairness Doctrine" is that frequency bandwidth that belongs to the people is being used, and so the people have the right to demand fairness, because the bandwidth is finite. But all types of public property are finite. Tax dollars are as finite as bandwidth. Why should not the fairness doctrine apply to government subsidies as well?

The news media has historically meant newspapers and magazines. The government provides these and other news media outlets with many benefits which we ordinary citizens and businesses do not have, like newspapers and magazines with reduced postal rates. The Supreme Court has mandated that when these vast corporations make mistakes of fact which would have cost other corporations hundred million dollar judgments, those corporations called "news media" can be false with relative impunity. If the media is treated like a pampered royal among rich corporations, can we not expect it at least to be fair?

Defying Phony "Fairness" by Promoting Real Fairness

Does this mean that we should abandon the idea of fairness in government regulation and action? Does it mean that we should disregard the power of any medium, including talk radio, to propagandize and to pervert republican democracy? No, and there are serious things that serious people should propose to make communications - the very heart of any large democracy - work better.

Bandwidth is finite and citizens should have more say in how that is allocated. Congress and the FCC have done this job poorly. How about granting each citizen a bandwidth voucher? Rather than have an impersonal, bloated regulatory agency divvy up bandwidth, give each citizen a "voucher" equal to part of the whole regulated bandwidth, let those citizens grant that voucher to those who favor the values of the donating citizen. This would require the users of bandwidth to compete by presenting systems of values and standards of integrity.

Buying bandwidth, like buying votes, would be illegal, but winning bandwidth, like winning votes, would be wholesome and good. Those citizens who favored traditional Judeo-Christian traditions, pro-American news and documentaries, and market driven solutions to problems would be able to dominate television and radio broadcasting because the people would have voted them that share of the people's bandwidth.

Another to help restore fairness in public expression would be to end the unfair advantage that self-defined "news organizations" have over other giant companies. The Supreme Court, in one of its ghastliest decisions, made gross inaccuracy with facts by these enormous economic empires immune to torts or regulation. Congress may lack the power to regulate speech, but it can certainly regulate corporations subsidized by government. Congress should pass a law that requires that any newspaper that uses lower postage rates or television network that broadcast over the people's airways to be as truthful as any other corporation. False or inaccurate statements should be subject to the same civil liability as other big companies. Let the New York Times and CNN live by the same rules that tobacco companies and drug companies have been living with for decades.

Fairness should also require that non-profit recipients of taxpayer largess and privileges must be balanced and truthful. PBS, NPR and taxpayer funded university systems should be required to present both sides of the argument for Darwinism, both positions on the virtue of government social programs, and so on - and suppressing opposing opinions should trigger severe sanctions.

Those actions would help restore fairness, factuality and balance in public discourse in America, but why stop there? The totalitarian impulse is creeping across Europe is becoming the accepted norm for how ruling factions handle opponents. So why not put diplomatic pressure against the increasingly gutless, politically correct nations of the "free" world? Those nations and peoples who condemn America - horrors! - for keeping the death penalty to punish sadistic men who rape, torture and murder children should be held to account for their notions of human rights. Congress should enact a law which grants political asylum to refugees from nations which punish those who speak against the elites.

The so-called "Fairness Doctrine," as it exists now, is simply a smokescreen by those who have had a state sanctioned monopoly and who fear competition. It is like Standard Oil a century ago complaining about wildcatters in the Texas. The market will sort out imbalance over time, but if the censors of talk radio insist, we should offer them some real proposals for a real Fairness Doctrine.

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Copyright ©2008 Bruce Walker

Bruce Walker is a long-time conservative writer whose work is published regularly at popular conservative sites such as American Thinker.