By Alan Nathan © 2008 Washington Times
What chance do arguments have to rise and fall on their merits if they’re framed by a seemingly party-owned press? And once that party comes to power, won’t its lackey journalists constitute a type of state-owned press? In other words (after Inauguration Day), how can the blushing news media keep from sharing President-elect Barack Obama’s political bed – given they have already serviced his electoral needs?
The news reporting world must recognize that responsible journalism requires universal standards of neutrality, and that this can only occur when facts are presented in their self-evident form. When they’re not, the public naturally becomes more propagandized than informed. Punditry from all political perspectives is wonderfully helpful and perfectly legitimate – until it masquerades as news.
On Oct. 22, the Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism illustrated that between the conventions and the debates, John McCain received double the negative reporting but only one-third of the positive when compared to Mr. Obama. On Nov. 9, Deborah Howell, ombudsman for The Washington Post, reported that when examining stories on the two vice presidential nominees, Republican Gov. Sarah Palin and Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, “Some readers thought The Post went over Palin with a fine-tooth comb and neglected Biden. They are right; it was a serious omission,” Ms. Powell said.
Media bias has grown to such an extreme that only the more delusional ideologues still deny it. Fortunately, when they do this on radio, any degree of thoughtful point-counter-point debate quickly unravels their yarns of sophistry. However, even that fail-safe will be lost if talk radio’s free-flowing conversation is quashed by yet another threatening bias called the Fairness Doctrine – aka, government-sponsored censorship.
Will a President Obama try to enforce the Fairness Doctrine, which is a Federal Communications Commission policy that once rigidly required radio stations to allocate time to both sides of every issue? Free speech had been chilled by this measure because stations were afraid to have political discourse that might be vulnerable to bad-faith charges of violation.
Democrats going back as far as the 1960s have capitalized on this fear. One of the most popular quotations on the subject came from Bill Ruder, President Kennedy’s assistant secretary of commerce and co-founder of Ruder-Fin: “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.”
Democrats assert that the doctrine should be resurrected because the airwaves are public. On Election Day, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer appeared on Fox News and essentially argued that if the FCC can limit pornography on the air, then it can also referee political speech. He said that “you can’t say government ‘hands-off’ in one area to a commercial enterprise, but you are allowed to intervene in another. That’s not consistent.” (Clearly the war on drugs is far from over.)
Also on Election Day, the Hill newspaper revisited some other pro-Fairness Doctrine positions stated last year from Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois. Mrs. Feinstein had said: “I believe very strongly that the airwaves are public and people use these airwaves for profit.” I asked all three Senate offices whether or not they would also apply the Fairness Doctrine to television networks ABC, NBC and CBS given that they too use the public airwaves? Mrs. Feinstein’s press secretary, Gill Duran, and Mr. Durbin’s press secretary, Joe Shoemaker, each confirmed that his boss has no intention of calling for the FCC to reconstitute the Fairness Doctrine, nor would either introduce or back any legislation that would advocate its return. Mr. Schumer’s office declined to comment.
Perhaps more of these longtime proponents are sensing the political awkwardness of supporting a double-standard tolerance for one venue over the other. They might also recall that the last time the Supreme Court justices visited this issue (FCC v. League of Women Voters in 1984), they deemed that the finite nature of the public airwave spectrum had become a weaker justification for the doctrine in light of the increasing multitude of other media outlets. Since then, that logic seems to have become even stronger with the arrival of the Internet, satellite radio, and our current ability to open the spectrum to an even greater number of stations should the FCC so permit.
Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told me that he would be “genuinely shocked if the Democrats lurched into such a battle because of all the other more pressing challenges facing the country.”
That’s just great. Our First Amendment rights might now only be protected because those who would otherwise marginalize them are currently too busy.