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Tuning Out to be Heard Loud and Clear Essay

There is a reason TVs and radios come with an on-off switch, so people can use them. TV and radio are as commercial as any other industry, and they should be.  Preserving the people’s interest in available public broadcasting by presenting information in a balanced manner is a nice ideal, but ultimately a foolish one if you want to maintain a free and capitalistic society.  It is drafted in The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that “Congress shall make no law.  .  .  abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Yet in 1949 the Fairness Doctrine was enacted which stifled this right.  It was a point of much controversy in broadcasting for nearly 40 years until it was repealed in 1987, but now there are discussions about re-enacting it.  The FCC should not require radio and television to comply with the Fairness Doctrine if they want to maintain the rights of U.S. citizens.

At their core, radio and television are forms of entertainment.  One of the initial arguments of the Fairness Doctrine was that there were a limited number of frequencies available to license and that “there are many fewer broadcast licenses than people who would like to have them” (Rendall, 2005). Following that rationale there are a number of different entertainment venues people would like to operate, but they are limited by space or money or the abundance of that business present in their community.  Television and radio aren’t essential to life; they are a luxury, a form of entertainment and should be viewed as such.

It is true that they also act in an informative and educational way, but it is and should be at the discretion of the broadcaster what to publish, just as it is and should be at the discretion of the recipient whether or not to tune in.  Radio and television may be available to the public, but stations/ frequencies are owned and operated by corporations.  What they offer will be driven by public interest in so much as the public will disengage if it doesn’t like what is available.

Particularly with the advent of cable/ satellite television and digital radio the possibilities for viewers are virtually endless.  In 1984 the Supreme Court in FCC v. League of Women Voters concluded that the “scarcity rationale underlying the doctrine was flawed and that the doctrine was limiting the breadth of public debate” (Thierer, 1993).  Ultimately broadcasting is just another sellable product.  Mark Fowler, the FCC chair appointed by Regan in the 80s was quoted as saying,

‘The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants.’ To Fowler, television was ‘just another appliance—it’s a toaster with pictures,’ and he seemed to endorse total deregulation) ‘We’ve got to look beyond the conventional wisdom that we must somehow regulate this box.’ (Rendall, 2005).

Fowler is right; it is not a broadcaster’s responsibility acting as a mouthpiece for entertainment, providing a marketable product that we have to ‘buy’ into, to act in the community interest.  Eventually the broadcaster will respond to community interest because they are the audience and essentially determine what is played on the air by their willingness to engage, but it is not a broadcaster’s responsibility to do so.  Government should not be regulating available information because broadcasting is a consumer driven market.

The only discrepancy would be if we were talking about national or local government owned stations.  In the special case of those, it is in the best interest of citizens to have a balanced stream of information available particularly in a democratic political system.  Those stations would be used to inform and should be objective and/ or balanced because citizens would be using them as trusted unbiased resources.  However all other ‘public’ broadcasting sources currently available are privately owned by corporations and are and should be exclusively market driven to protect our right to free speech.

It is interesting that PBS the touted public broadcasting station was generated out of a demand from citizens to create just such a network of more balanced and educational information.  It was created and driven by the market and is funded primarily by its viewers (it does get some government grant funding and private grant funding for programming), so it is clear that tuning out or more to the point demanding alternate forms of entertainment (ultimately even PBS is still a just an alternate form of entertainment) works and there is no need for regulations.

The Fairness Doctrine addresses more specifically the coverage of political or current social issues.

The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials. (Rendall, 2005).

In enacting such a doctrine you limit the diversity available on the airwaves. In trying to follow regulations stations will be more guarded in what they present to avoid being fined or shut down by the FCC.  It actually stifles the opportunity for rigorous debate and challenges to opinion; by either not offering up the discussion of more controversial issues or by censoring them.  In 1974 the Supreme Court, while still upholding the doctrine in the Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo case concluded that it, “inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate” (Thierer, 1993). It also runs into the issue of who decides what fair coverage is.  .  .  a bunch of bureaucratic stuffed shirts at the FCC a board ultimately designed to enact ‘rules for censorship’.  How do we ensure that their own views wont taint their ‘fairness’ decisions.

With the amount of available stations, forms of media, just access to get information in general, the concept of a Fairness Doctrine is outdated when people can just change the channel or disconnect all together.  Broadcasting whether for public or private availability is still just a form of entertainment and should be treated as such.  Its regulation should be deemed by its market segments because viewers are (or at least should be) more than capable of influencing what is available to them. Viewers should also be allowed to filter their own information, seek out differing opinions; after all just because an opposing view might be offered doesn’t mean that listener is obliged to stick around.  Just tuning out is the loudest and clearest form of speech and is all the regulation that is really needed.

References

Rendall, Steve. (2005). The Fairness Doctrine How We Lost it, and Why We

Need it Back. FAIR, February 12, 2005. Retrieved March 15, 2009, from http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0212-03.htm

Thierer, Adam. (1993). Why the Fairness Doctrine is Anything But Fair. The Heritage

Foundation, Executive Memorandum #368, October 29, 1993. Retrieved March 15, 2009, http://www.heritage.org/Research/Regulation/EM368.cfm

The Constitution of the United States. Amendment 1.


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