Fairness by Fiat


September 01, 1993|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- When Congress returns from vacation after Labor Day, one of the little pieces of mischievous legislation it will consider is the misnamed ''Fairness Doctrine.'' Before 1987, it required that broadcasters provide balanced and fair coverage of issues and ideas.

The Federal Communications Commission did away with the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. It believed there were sufficient broadcast and cable opportunities on which to air conflicting viewpoints so that government no longer needed to serve as an ideological watchdog.

Congress passed legislation in an attempt to codify the doctrine, but President Reagan's veto was upheld. It is interesting that the conservative Mr. Reagan felt no need to regulate notoriously liberal broadcasters.

Now, two similar bills that would restore the Fairness Doctrine are in House committees. Attempting to justify an assault on the First Amendment (''Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press''), the measure argues, ''Because the Fairness Doctrine only requires more speech, it has no chilling effect on broadcasters.''

It would, in fact, have such a chilling effect. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh believes it is a direct attack on his successful efforts to convey facts, opinion and information from a conservative viewpoint that are not heard anywhere else. Mr. Limbaugh, who is heard on more than 600 mostly AM radio stations with an audience estimated at 20 million listeners a week, is a phenomenon unseen in modern times.

As he likes to say, ''I am equal time,'' and anyone who might listen to the exclusively liberal National Public Radio (which will not be regulated by the Fairness Doctrine) would have to agree.

Former FCC Chairman Alfred Sykes worries that local broadcasters will feel intimidated about carrying anything that might be considered controversial for fear it could trigger a legal challenge. ''The last thing broadcasters want to do,'' he says, ''is call their Washington attorney. It gets expensive.''

Mr. Sykes says proponents of the Fairness Doctrine have an obligation to say what has happened since 1987 that they don't like. The fact is that broadcasting -- particularly AM radio which was near death and has been rescued by popular talk-show hosts like Mr. Limbaugh -- has enjoyed a lift since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. The explosion of cable channels, low-power community-access channels and other outlets for ideas has guaranteed that even views held by the tiniest number of people have a chance at being aired.

Politicians have no business deciding what is ''fair'' or ''unfair.'' The American people who make up the marketplace can decide that for themselves. If the marketplace, through the on-off switch or changing channels, decides which entertainment programs flourish and which do not, the same ought to be true of news and public affairs programming and other shows carrying ''controversial'' ideas.

Are some networks and individual programs biased? Of course, but there are now enough sources of information that we don't need government ''thought police'' determining for us which are which and what constitutes enough pluralism to qualify as fair.

What makes anyone think a government that can't balance the budget fairly will do a better job regulating and grading information as it grades beef?

The Fairness Doctrine should be left where it is -- as a historical relic. The First Amendment would be honored and strengthened if it is.

5) Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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