Awhile ago, I stumbled upon a Facebook meme quoting author Leviak B. Kelly:
“… [W]icked people reveal themselves in words first. To inhibit speech would inhibit us seeing the wicked before they act.” As a blogger and an ex-media worker, the quote strongly resonated with me. For some reason, the quote brought to mind a pithy saying by former Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey. “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously.”
Just as many terrible ideas have been revealed by their advocates, so have some positive, constructive ideas been brought to the public domain by their advocates. Truly free speech is the hallmark of a society that honestly values freedom.
When I first became a broadcaster there was an intelligent, wise regulatory principle enshrined in rules set forth by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As the public service director, it was a rule that I took to heart as part of my personal and professional mission statement. The “Fairness Doctrine” was an enforceable set of rules and guidelines that was misunderstood and disliked by many people, especially broadcast station owners.
What the Fairness Doctrine mainly did, was to proactively enforce freedom of speech. On the surface, the idea of enforcing freedom of speech seems not only absurd, but limiting to the freedoms of radio and television station owners. In practice, it was a beautifully crafted regulation that served the public quite well and equitably.
One must remember the state of electronic media during the years before the Internet. Radio and television stations, then (and now) relied upon the use of the publicly owned broadcast bandwidth for the dissemination of entertainment, information, and editorializing.
Here is where broadcasting differs from the print media of newspapers, magazines, and broadsides. A print journalist has the option of privately owning a printing press, ink, and paper. He or she then can sell or give this privately owned inked paper to the public. Since there is no limit to the number of private individuals who can purchase printing technology and paper, there is no theoretical need to worry about the expression of opposing views in the public sphere. (The same can be said about today’s Internet.)
On the other hand, broadcasting uses an extremely scarce resource, radio frequency bandwidth. In addition, that bandwidth is the property of the general public (public domain). There are only a limited amount of dial positions that can be assigned to anybody. The physical properties of electronic, over the air transmission of signals, requires certain spacing of channels to avoid interference within so many hundreds of miles. A regulatory body is needed to not only assign a channel to a person or an organization, but to assure that the user of that channel serve the public interest by issuing operating licences to use the public domain.
What usually happened was that wealthy, powerful people obtained broadcast licenses. Due to the fact that in most places, only one or two broadcasters could be licensed to operate in a city, broadcasters could and did effectively monopolize public discussion of public ideas and policy.
People who had differing or opposing views did not have any opportunity to share their views in the same manner as station owners enjoyed on publicly owned airwaves. The commissioners of the FCC created the Fairness Doctrine as the most effective and fairest way to address this inequity.
The FCC imposed “affirmative responsibilities on broadcasters to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints.” To satisfy this public need, the Fairness Doctrine stated that broadcasters must provide free time for the presentation of opposing views. “The time must be presented free if a paid sponsor is not available and must provide programming on public issues if nobody else seeks to do so.”
It’s easy to see why influential, powerful station owners came to hate the Fairness Doctrine and why they advocated for its demise. Meantime, those of us who sincerely believed in being good public affairs directors, loved the regulation. We could ensure that all sides of a debate could be heard and not worry about losing our jobs by producing content our employers decried. In other words, a good public affairs director made sure the citizens had access to the airwaves they actually owned. It was a win-win situation. Station management had the upper hand regarding public debate, but the general public had the enforceable right to voice their opposition. One can understand why so many of us public service directors and producers were allies of the FCC’s cause.
The set of rules and regulations called on radio and television to not only be mere industries, but to act as servants of the public interest. A cabal of owners challenged the Fairness Doctrine in court, but it always survived court challenges. It wasn’t until special interests were able to appoint commissioners friendly to station owners, in 1987, that the doctrine was abolished by the FCC. Any pretense to public fairness quickly evaporated in the marketplace. Only a few stations made any half-hearted effort to cater to fair public discussion.
Those of us who understood and valued the Fairness Doctrine, advocated for its reinstatement. We only tapered back our efforts once the Internet gained traction. Now, as we are all well aware, there is no shortage of venues for the free expression of public opinion and debate.
The big free speech problem we face now, is the drive by various powerful individuals and institutions to muzzle free speech on the World Wide Web. That is a problem to be dealt with continuously into the forseeable future.