Time for a Digital Fairness Doctrine

The debate on Sinclair Broadcasting's plans to air an anti-John Kerry documentary on its 62 stations underscores the need for new national safeguards for the electronic media in the U.S. Policies that ensure that digital media – including cable, satellite, and the broadband Internet – have an obligation to provide diverse viewpoints are more necessary than ever.

While we must address the issue of bias in broadcasting, the principle at stake is bigger and has more far-reaching implications.

Until the late '80s, the broadcasting industry was governed by a set of rules, better known as the "Fairness Doctrine," which required stations to operate in the "public interest." This included the requirement that stations must offer a variety of viewpoints that reflect opposing perspectives, and that they operate in a "fair" manner while doing so. Broadcasters also had to ensure they would treat a wide variety of politically related speech fairly, including ballot initiatives and personal attacks on the character or honesty of an individual and group.

The broadcast lobby and their allies successfully won repeal of much of the "Fairness Doctrine" during the late '80s. The Reagan/Bush Sr. FCC was notoriously aligned with the broadcast lobby. Since that time, the National Association of Broadcasters has successfully fought against its re-imposition using the spurious argument that the Fairness Doctrine harms the First Amendment rights of the media. The leading advocate for the Doctrine – Media Access Project – has never had the resources it needed for an effective campaign to restore it.

The rise of conservative talk radio is directly linked to the absence of the Fairness Doctrine. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the myriad of shrill right-wing talk jocks are immune from having to provide even a modicum of balanced perspective. Media consolidation has greatly fueled the problem, creating powerful station chains with a distinct political perspective, such as Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting. While on cable and satellite networks, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel offers conservative commentary thinly disguised as journalism.

Conglomeration and deregulation has also weakened what little capability TV and radio networks possessed to engage in serious news reporting. All of these developments have created a one-sided (and highly crazed) media environment where opinion has replaced journalism, and ideology and ownership shape what audiences see and hear.

Broadcasters, however, are still licensed to serve the public interest and receive invaluable free access to public airwaves. It is time to restore the full measure of rules that require stations to provide a balance of perspectives. But safeguarding public interest requires not just reinstating the Fairness Doctrine but also new safeguards that reflect the realities of today's digital landscape.

The majority of Americans – around 87 percent – receive their TV service from "multichannel" providers, i.e., either cable TV or direct broadcast satellite (DBS). The handful of conglomerates that control cable and DBS keep a tight rein over programming. As we move toward digital broadcasting, companies such as Comcast, Time Warner and Murdoch's DirecTV will have even greater gatekeeping clout, especially in the emerging world of "personalized" TV, where content can be targeted directly to individuals. These companies will also control access to vital "choke points," including set top box controlled personal video recorders, that will determine what content a viewer can access.

The broadband Internet is not immune either. New policies for cable and telephone broadband by the Bush FCC give "last mile" control of content to monopolies like Comcast, SBC and Verizon. For example, there's nothing to prevent them from speeding up online advocacy ads to your in-box that support their favored political causes.

What's to be done?

A new national policy on "fairness" is needed, along with restored rules on media ownership and forward-thinking approaches to reducing the role of money for paid electronic advertising. All legally qualified candidates and ballot initiatives should have access to viewers, able to distribute campaign information directly (and without having to buy "time"). TV channels should be required to promote public awareness to this information. Cable and satellite network owners should be required to provide on-demand channel or program capacity to any bona fide news operation. These measures will help break the stranglehold the companies have over news, permitting the emergence of (hopefully) more services geared towards substantive coverage.

For broadband, the Congress (or a different FCC) must require that network operators treat all content in a non-discriminatory manner. Such a policy has long been at the core of the Internet's evolution. FCC Chair Michael Powell, as part of his "Leave No Media Monopoly Behind" regime, has crafted new rules that will help the big cable and telephone companies to stealthily change how the Internet serves the public. Expect broadband service to be further commercialized and "monetized," as the industry likes to say. That's why we need a new "Fairness" rule to ensure that all political and news content can flow unimpeded to users.

Radio and TV broadcasters should have to provide the full range of safeguards in return for being allowed to use a public resource for free.

It's time now to develop a "Fairness Doctrine" agenda that strengthens democratic discourse. A decade from now, we don't want to witness a "digital" Sinclair debacle, where Rupert Murdoch, Comcast, and BellSouth "push" their favorite candidate for president, using the hundreds of TV channels and broadband connections at their command. New policies are required now, to help make clear what we mean by the "public interest, convenience, and necessity," of the digital era.

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