February 14, 2009, 11:25 am
Filed under: Ian | Tags: ,

No two words send the American right into a frothier tizzy than “Fairness Doctrine.” This doctrine, which says that if a broadcast outlet expresses one viewpoint it must give equal time to the opposing viewpoint, has no serious supporters in Congress. and there are no bills to reinstate it.  It is, in fact, a non-issue.

Still, because it is unambiguously good for the country when wingnuts waste their efforts on non-issues, as opposed to fighting against things that acutally matter.  Let me spend a moment on incitement:


What’s particularly silly about the wingnut obsession with the Fairness Doctrine is that any discussion of whether or not it should be reinstated will probably be mooted very soon by technology.

It is a fairly textbook violation of the First Amendment for government to impose a consequence on someone for expressing their political opinion, but that is exactly what the Fairness Doctrine does.  If Rush Limbaugh expresses the viewpoint that X is bad, the Fairness Doctrine requires them to use their own resources to subsequently broadcast the viewpoint that X is good.  Forced speech is a big constitutional no-no, and the Supreme Court said as much back when the justices actually gave a damn about democracy and individual liberty.

There is an exception to this rule for broadcast media because of the problem of limited bandwidth.  Because the radio or TV dial will only support but so many stations, if Rush Limbaugh is given a piece of that bandwidth, he is effectively drowning out an opposing viewpoint which could have been broadcast on that narrow piece of radio real estate instead.  Broadcast is a zero sum game, so the government has a greater power to regulate broadcast media because, otherwise, one company might snatch up the entire spectrum and then no one but them will have the opportunity to broadcast their viewpoints.

Newer forms of media, such as cable or satellite or the Internets, don’t have this limitation, however.  When I started Overruled, it had absolutely zero impact on anyone else’s ability to create their own site—indeed, a thousand people could start their own, independent “Why that guy who writes Overruled is an Asshat” blogs tomorrow, and the only thing limiting their ability to spread the gospel of my asshattery is their own ability to write well and shamelessly promote their own site.

All of this is to say that, while I personally would like to see people like Rush taken down a peg, in a world where we can literally carry the entire Internet in a device the same size as a pack of cigarettes, I can’t imagine that broadcast media will be around very much longer.  When broadcast is displaced by a medium that doesn’t suffer from the limited bandwidth problem, it will be constitutionally impossible to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine.


2 Comments so far
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I wonder if your argument would continue to hold up if the attacks on net neutrality in the Congress are successful. If it becomes possible to purchase bandwidth priority, does that not create a system in some way analogous to the original days of broadcast radio/television? I have to think that it would have the same crowding out effect.

Comment by Salamander


That’s a really good question, and it would really depend on the nature of the government’s attacks on net neutrality. If the government were to change the internet into something just like radio, where there was a limited number of total websites or domain names and those were dolled out to individuals and companies by government licensure, than applying the Fairness Doctrine would be appropriate. If, however, the attacks on net neutrality did not create a limited bandwidth problem, the argument for allowing a Fairness Doctrinesque regime would be much weaker.

Which is not to say that it wouldn’t be an utter fucking disaster if the government undermined net neutrality,

Comment by Ian

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