In announcing recently that the Fairness Doctrine would soon be removed from the books, the FCC took one small step into the information age. Unfortunately there is still plenty of media regulation that is stuck in the industrial age and in serious need of rethinking.
A major problem with government regulation of business is that it is based upon markets as they exist at the time regulations are imposed. In the case of radio, this body of law has largely been the Radio Act of 1927, the Communications Act of 1934, and the Fairness Doctrine adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949. The nature of the problem becomes clear when you recognize that there were fewer than 3000 radio stations in 1949 compared with some 14,000 today.
The Fairness Doctrine has required radio stations to air opposing points of view. So, for example, if a radio host or guest favored a particular policy, the station was obligated to air a message against. Perhaps this made more sense when a geographic market had few stations, but today every point of view under the sun finds its way into the thousands of media outlets available, so the market itself provides plenty of protection for minority views. Really, the only question should be why it took government regulators so long to catch up to market realities.
But while we celebrate this small step, we must acknowledge that government has so far to go to square up government policy with market realities of the media age. Take the equal time rule, which is a kind of companion to the Fairness Doctrine requiring that, if one candidate for office appears, other candidates must be given equal time. This rule is also anachronistic and has been so swallowed up in exceptions as to be meaningless. If Donald Trump were to run for president, for example, his appearances on “The Apprentice” might require equal time for other candidates, unless the show was on cable television, which is a meaningless distinction these days. If a candidate sits down for a few minutes with Letterman or Leno, another exception for “news/interviews” ridiculously comes into play. Isn’t it time for “equal time” to go the way of the Fairness Doctrine?
And, while we’re at it, how about government subsidies and funding for public broadcasting? Again, these may have made sense when there were only 3 or 4 television networks, but if there is a need for their programs today, shouldn’t they have to compete for funding and air time with everyone else? I find little justification for a near-bankrupt government to spend money on television and radio programs when we live in a 24-7 media cycle.
So one cheer for the FCC. But I’ll hold off on three cheers until more work is done to align government policy toward media with the market realities of the media age.
(photo credit: Scorch 07)