Wednesday, February 25, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

When Conservatives Favored the Fairness Doctrine

I was over at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the other day chatting with someone about various regulatory issues and Rush Limbaugh's WSJ editorial came up. The person I was speaking with made a comment about how conservatives have really been energized and unified in opposition to the re-imposition to the Doctrine. I reminded them, however, that it wasn't always the case that conservatives stood together in the fight over the Fairness Doctrine. In fact, when I first came to town almost 20 years ago, there were still plenty of conservatives who actually favored it. I was reminded of that fact when reading a new piece in Engage about "Broadcast 'Fairness' in the Twenty-First Century" by my friend Robert Corn-Revere. Bob is one America's great First Amendment defenders and his new essay offers an excellent history of efforts to micro-manage speech on the broadcast airwaves over the years. In it, he reminds us that:

Given the recent vocal opposition to the Fairness Doctrine in the interest of preserving conservative talk radio, it is easy to forget that many prominent conservatives championed the doctrine before its demise. Phyllis Schlafly was a vocal proponent of the Fairness Doctrine because of what she described as "the outrageous and blatant anti-Reagan bias of the TV network newscasts," and she testified at the FCC in the 1980s in support of the policy "to serve as a small restraint on the monopoly power wielded by Big TV Media." Senator Jesse Helms was another long-time advocate of the Fairness Doctrine, and conservative groups Accuracy in Media and the American Legal Foundation actively pursued fairness complaints at the FCC against network newscasts.

Likewise, in our book, A Manifesto for Media Freedom, Brian Anderson and I note that some other prominent right-leaning politicians, such as Sen. Trent Lott, favored the Fairness Doctrine. Moreover, even though most of those conservative individuals and groups have now turned against the Fairness Doctrine, some Republicans still defend (or even seek to expand) the same underlying regulatory concepts that served as the foundation of the Fairness Doctrine. As Corn-Revere notes:

More recently, a Republican-controlled FCC under Kevin Martin has advocated far more extensive controls over broadcast and cable programming, including news and public affairs. These proposed regulations include requirements governing local programming, restrictions on the use of video news releases, and other new rules that would extend content controls beyond broadcasting. These initiatives have been embraced by liberal media activists, who have said they will seek to ensure that the FCC under the Democrats will adopt and enforce the proposals of the Martin Commission. The common denominator of the liberal and conservative factions is the overriding belief that traditional First Amendment protections should not be applied to broadcasting or other electronic media.
Unfortunately, Bob's got it exactly right: You really can't trust anyone on the Left or Right to make a principled or consistent argument in favor of First Amendment freedoms across the board, including for broadcasting. I have made that point in greater detail in my recent essay on "FCC v. Fox and the Future of the First Amendment" as well as this old law review article, "Why Regulate Broadcasting: Toward a Consistent First Amendment Standard for the Information Age."

Simply stated, proposals to regulate speech -- especially speech delivered over broadcast TV and radio platforms -- can emanate from either side of the political aisle. Of course, each side has their own set of rationales for imposing controls on speech and violating the First Amendment. It often comes down to content restraint (the conservative justification) versus content promotion (the liberal justification). In his excellent book, The Creation of Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, media historian Paul Starr labels these different groups the "advocates of repression" (those in favor of content restraint), versus the "advocates of uplift" (those in favor of promoting specific types of content). Typically, conservatives and Republicans have dominated the "advocates of repression" camp, while most liberals and Democrats fall in the "advocates of uplift" category. Ford Rowan, author of the book Broadcast Fairness, put it this way: "Many liberals want regulation to make broadcasting do wonderful things; many conservatives want regulation to restrain broadcasting from doing terrible things."

Increasingly, however, the ideological divide is disappearing between these two camps. Congressional lawmakers such as former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) on the political Left often favor the same content controls and mandates that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) on the political Right. That's true not just of broadcast regulation, but for proposals to censor video games, the Internet, and social networking sites. And, even when it comes to the Fairness Doctrine, until just recently there was "a vast bipartisan conspiracy" to keep it on the books, as Corn-Revere argues. I'm glad those conservatives who once favored the Fairness Doctrine came around to seeing the error in the ways. Nonetheless, this episode illustrates how, once again, those of us who care about free speech and expression must remain vigilant in defending the First Amendment from attacks by both conservatives and liberals.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 12:09 PM | Free Speech , Mass Media