Sunday, February 7, 2016

No more denial: Bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

So much for rose-colored glasses; this calls for prescription specs.
I didn't want to write this post. I really didn't want to write this post. But I can't live in denial any longer: the news business isn't what it used to be -- and that needs to change.

I was quite the idealist in college, and in my early years as a reporter. I took pride in being a member of the vaunted Fourth Estate, the final check-and-balance on the three branches of government enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of the press was guaranteed by the First Amendment, right beside freedom of speech. Numero uno, baby!

The press is supposed to be the ultimate whistleblower -- the institution that keeps an eagle eye out for unfairness and corruption, in government as well as in other facets of society. And when unfairness and corruption are found, the press is supposed to be the first institution to raise a stink about it, to hold officials' feet to the fire, to demand explanations, and to keep making noise until the problem is fixed.

I got my first job in broadcast news in late 1978, at a time when broadcasters still took that mission seriously. They had to. Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission and its Fairness Doctrine, local radio and television stations had to operate in the public interest -- or lose their licenses. "Public interest" involved keeping listeners and viewers apprised of what was going on in their cities and towns -- not just crimes, but also stuff like what the city council and the county zoning board were up to. Those meetings were as dry as dust for a reporter to cover, usually, but local regulations affect people far more directly than the actions of the federal bureaucracy. The Fairness Doctrine also required stations to provide airtime for opposing viewpoints.

The Doctrine was instituted in 1949, at a time when the big broadcast networks controlled such a large chunk of the airwaves that public discourse might have been in danger of being stifled. It was still in place when I graduated from college. But by 1987, pro-business, Reagan appointees were running the FCC. They argued that with the advent of cable, the broadcasting "marketplace of ideas" had become sufficiently diverse and the Fairness Doctrine was therefore obsolete. So the FCC repealed it.

And over the past thirty-ish years, broadcast news operations have become ever more polarized, while at the same time there has been a frenzy of mergers and ownership changes. Today, according to Freepress.net, ten companies own a huge chunk of the information and entertainment industry:

  • CBS Corporation, which owns Showtime and Simon & Schuster, among others;
  • Comcast Corporation, which owns NBCUniversal, MSNBC, and Fandango, as well as chunks of other media companies;
  • Gannett Corporation, which owns USA Today and a bunch of websites, including Careerbuilder.com;
  • News Corp., which owns Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and HarperCollins; among others;
  • Time Warner, which owns a bunch of magazines (including Time and People), HBO, CNN, and DC Comics, to name a few; 
  • Tribune Corporation, which owns the Chicago Tribune, WGN, and the Food Network, among others; 
  • Viacom, which owns MTV, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and more:
  • Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, ESPN, and the Marvel Universe, as well as the Disney theme parks and other companies;
  • The Washington Post Company, which owns the Washington Post, Slate, Kaplan (the educational test prep people) -- and which, in turn, is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns a little internet sales site called Amazon; and
  • A couple of venture capital companies, which currently own Clear Channel, the largest radio station owner in the United States. Clear Channel owns more than 850 radio stations nationwide, as well as Premiere Radio Networks, which distributes the Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity shows.
Ten huge corporations own so much of what we see, hear, and read every day -- including news operations. So there's nobody left to hold their feet to the fire. "News" has become all about the ratings. And when other big corporations send jobs overseas and give all their profits to shareholders and the guys in the C-suites, who's to blow the whistle on them?

Once again, I'm grateful that I got out of the news business when I did. But more importantly, I think it's time to enact a new Fairness Doctrine.

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This call for bloggy fairness has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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