Tom Eblen: Restoring Fairness Doctrine a bad idea

Talk radio is right about one issue: Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would be a bad idea.

Of course, it's not really much of an issue. While a few congressional Democrats have suggested some sort of new Fairness Doctrine, there's little support for it. President Obama is on record against it. It won't happen.

But the mere suggestion has been enough to send right-wing pundits into a frenzy.

They always need a good frenzy.

Fear, paranoia and calls to "take back America" have been these guys' stock in trade for years, even though their favored politicians have run the country most of that time.

Left-wing talk show hosts and bloggers are no better. All fanatics like to take a thread of fact and spin it into a web of nonsense. Their opinions are often based on ignorance, distortion and speculation. Nothing energizes them more than a good conspiracy theory.

There's no more reliable formula for profit in the media business these days than partisan outrage — the more outrageous, the better. As writer H.L. Mencken observed nearly a century ago, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

The Fairness Doctrine governed the owners of radio and television stations between 1949 and 1987. It required on-air discussions of controversial issues of public interest to be fair, equitable and honest.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Fairness Doctrine didn't violate the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and the press because the limited public airwaves belonged to the public, not to the owners of broadcast licenses.

But the trouble with the Fairness Doctrine was that values such as fairness, equity and honesty are subjective. In practice, many broadcasters simply avoided controversial topics for fear of getting in trouble with the regulators.

During the 38 years the Fairness Doctrine was in force, the justification for it grew steadily weaker as new technology emerged and the power of over-the-air radio and television diminished. Now we have cable TV, satellite radio and the Internet, the most egalitarian communications medium in history.

Talk radio didn't result so much from repeal of the Fairness Doctrine as it did from deregulation that allowed a handful of companies to buy up most of America's radio stations. Those companies maximized profits by cutting local programming and replacing it with syndicated talkers.

Right-wing provocateurs dominate the medium because their views sell. The result is that many Americans now confuse the right lane with the middle of the road.

While new technology has broadened the menu of news and opinion, it has made it easy for people to restrict their diet. Many Americans now want to read or hear only things they agree with. They dismiss other opinions or facts as "biased."

It has long been fashionable for conservatives to complain about "liberal bias" in news reporting. But, as every newspaper editor knows, there are plenty of vocal liberals, too. Left-wingers accuse journalists of suppressing "the truth" to protect corporate profits, the wealthy power structure and the status quo.

No wonder so many people hate The Media: It reflects more than them.

How could a new Fairness Doctrine possibly work? Would it apply to cable and satellite broadcasters, too? What about the Internet? Who would decide what's fair?

It's never a good idea to limit public discussion. No freedoms are more vital than speech and the press. They are what keep government and other powerful institutions in check and the pendulum of popular passion from swinging too far one way or the other.

The last thing America needs is another Fairness Doctrine. Instead, each American needs to adopt his or her own Intelligence Doctrine. Citizens of all persuasions need to recognize their biases, challenge their assumptions and be more skeptical. They need to read widely and think for themselves.

Don't whine about the media, whether it's Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, Fox News or The New York Times. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet have put a world of information at your fingertips.

Do your homework. Think critically. Prove H.L. Mencken wrong.