We Need a New Fairness Doctrine.

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It is time for a return to the glorious days of old time radio. When men were men and women were glad of it. When heros leaped tall buildings at a single bound and ventriloquists made us laugh even though we couldn’t see their dummies. Now, thanks to podcasting, we see the dummies but they don’t make us laugh.

The world has changed and changed again. In 1987, Ronald Reagan, who sold the country on the idea that the most dangerous words we could hear were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” decided that regulations were for suckers. This was the same Ronald Reagan whose shoe-salesman father and his neighbors were pulled through the Depression by the vision and the will of a President who only ran for office after he had been relegated to a wheelchair and who knew about discipline and watching over a society where individuality gone wild could bring about disaster. FDR knew, because every day of his life, after the struggle to simply get dressed, he tried to save lives, not yet from war, but from the chaos left behind by the failed greed of financiers.

Reagan’s Administration, as decided by his appointed FCC commissioners, decided that the Fairness Doctrine, which had been around almost as long as radio, in spirit and later codified into FCC rules, was unconstitutional because it had a “chlling effect” on free speech. In other words, by making people correct lies, it was slowing down the process, which Reagan’s FCC saw as primarily a business and not a device for communicating the truth.

In fact, the Chairman of Reagan’s FCC at the time, television industry attorney Mark Fowler, stated the Reagan communications philosophy pretty succinctly. “The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants.” In in other words, Reagan felt that that the public trust should be replaced by the needs of marketers, which has evolved into concepts like addressing the needs of “interational corporations” and corporations “too big to fail.”

We need new and immediate legislation to correct an imbalance between the public’s right to know the truth, and the needs of corporations to have the freedom to broadcast. Not only is this “fair” and constitutionally sound, it is essential to the development of a country that has the very freedoms that Ronald Reagan purported to seek. A new Fairness Doctrine would have the following provisions.

1. Any comment or news item broadcast over public airwaves, terrestrial, satellite or Internet, that concerns the public trust, must be able to offer absolute, documented proof of validity.
2. Local radio or television stations, including satellite or cable stations must demonstrate an ongoing, regular, and beneficial relationship and involvement with the community that they serve.
3. Networks will be limited to no more than 25 separate local stations.
4. No newspaper or broadcast entity will be allowed to own more than one of each type of media in each location, unless there are a minimum of three functioning competitors in each separate medium in that community. In other words, no newspaper may own a television station, and a radio broadcasting station unless there are two additional newspapers, television stations and radio stations in that market.
5. “Equal time” provisions will continue in force.
6. “Incitement” which shall be defined as the encouragement of activity that may lead to violent action against any citizen or group, shall be forbidden and punishable by criminal statute as well as the most severe FCC sanctions.

What would Reagan do?

In a 1975, interview with REASON Magazine, then governor Reagan gave his ultimate view of the purpose of government:

REASON: Governor, could you give us some examples of what you would consider to be proper functions of government?

REAGAN: Well, the first and most important thing is that government exists to protect us from each other. Government exists, of course, for the defense of the nation, and for the defense of the rights of the individual. Maybe we don’t all agree on some of the other accepted functions of government, such as fire departments and police departments–again the protection of the people.

(He went on to say that he did not consider medical treatment to be necessary for the public to be provided and even seemed to be nostalgic for the days…God knows how long ago…when private fire departments would come down the street apparently looking for the address numbers on the doors to insure that they were not putting out the fires of someone who was not a subscriber.)

Ronald Wilson Reagan’s idea of the defense of the rights of the individual was to do away with all regulation that would inhibit the free exercise of….individual freedom. But what about when your freedom of expression causes my business to fail? What about when your freedom of expression causes the people to falsely believe that they must go to war? What about when your freedom of expression causes a country to believe that a complex society needs no rules, that fifty million Americans are too lazy or too stupid to have health care and that CEOs of health care companies, making $100 million a year are right in denying care to sick children, who also want some rights.

Reagan’s problem was that he was very selective in whose individual rights were protected. And he was very vague on how all these people would get through an intersection without chaos. The result of the Reagan simplistic political philosophy was that we did not think through our politics of individualism. And the smart guys took advantage of it to get rich. Is this the survival of the “fittest?” Let’s suppose that we did away with regulations, on, say, murder. Then the fittest would probably be the best killers. Are they what we want to survive as the “fittest?” Would that generate a “Great Society?”

We come to the intersection and we follow the rules. We all know the rules when we get our licenses. When we follow the rules, traffic flows in an orderly manner. Reagan didn’t understand one thing. That protecting ourselves from each other extends far beyond the police department. And a good thing that it does, because our police departments are not doing a very good job of protecting us from each other. And it is not their fault. Legislators, not wanting to inhibit “individual freedom” (a convenient excuse) have been so cowardly that they write laws that allow citizens to walk around not only with loaded weapons, but concealed loaded weapons.

Society has far more complex interactions than merely to provide a police department and an army. As societies progress, they become community organizations that recognize the occasional or regular need for mutual assistance. This applies to protecting ourselves from not only dangerous individuals, as in Reagan’s 19th Century view of the world, but also dangerous diseases and dangerous ideas. In that last need, we must have a system of communicating the truth. It is an essential part of our constitution…the People have the right to know the truth. And the truth is not subject to interpretation.

At present, the rights of the People to know the truth have become secondary to the rights of the media to operate at a profit. We no longer get the truth. Even in media where we ultimately do find facts, they come often as merely a response to lies. We need truth at the beginning, not merely as a response to false statements. We have had the order of importance backwards since 1987. We now do not get the truth from media. We must return to the free expression of ideas on the air and in print. It is essential and it is urgent. Without a new Fairness Doctrine, we are in danger of losing a democratic society.