Friday, November 29, 2002

Paul Krugman -- in his twice-weekly column in the New York Times -- writes once again to lambaste the biases of corporate media.
For most of the last 50 years, public policy took it for granted that media bias was a potential problem. * * *
The answer was a combination of regulation and informal guidelines. The "fairness doctrine" forced broadcast media to give comparable representation to opposing points of view. Restrictions on ownership maintained a diversity of voices. And there was a general expectation that major news outlets would stay above the fray, distinguishing clearly between opinion and news reporting. The system didn't always work, but it did set some limits.

Over the past 15 years, however, much of that system has been dismantled. The fairness doctrine was abolished in 1987. Restrictions on ownership have been steadily loosened, and it seems likely that next year the Federal Communications Commission will abolish many of the restrictions that remain — quite possibly even allowing major networks to buy each other. And the informal rule against blatantly partisan reporting has also gone away — at least as long as you are partisan in the right direction.

The F.C.C. says that the old rules are no longer necessary because the marketplace has changed. According to the official line, new media — first cable television, then the Internet — have given the public access to a diversity of news sources, eliminating the need for public guidelines.

But is this really true?
Though he doesn't say this in so many words, it appears that Krugman favors the return of the fairness doctrine, or at least thinks it had a salutary effect during its reign.

But is that really true? The former head of CBS, Fred Friendly, describes the real effects of the fairness doctrine in his excellent book The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment (1975). Friendly recalls an extensive monitoring scheme set up by the Democratic National Committee for the very purpose of stifling right-wing broadcasters by issuing fairness doctrine demands. Wayne Phillips, a housing official in the Kennedy-Johnson administration, headed the monitoring operation. To quote Phillips: “Even more important than the free radio time was the effectiveness of this operation in inhibiting the political activity of these right-wing broadcasts . . . .” Id. at 41 (quoting Wayne Phillips).

Martin Firestone, an FCC lawyer at that time, wrote this in a memo:
The right-wingers operate on a strictly cash basis and it is for this reason that they are carried by so many small stations. Were our efforts to be continued on a year-round basis, we would find that many of these stations would consider the broadcasts of these programs bothersome and burdensome (especially if they are ultimately required to give us free time) and would start dropping the programs from their broadcast schedule.
Id. at 42 (quoting Martin Firestone).

So the fairness doctrine arose not because of some high-minded desire for fairness, but because Democrats in the Johnson administration wanted a weapon to stamp out right-leaning media sources.

Something else Krugman ignores -- the empirical evidence shows that while the fairness doctrine was in effect, it actually resulted in less diversity of opinion, not more. The reason is fairly obvious. If by expressing an opinion of any stripe on the air you open up the floodgates for other people to demand "equal time," you become wary of taking on political issues at all. After the fairness doctrine was abandoned, the media generally began covering political issues in more detail and with a greater diversity of opinion, as has been resoundingly demonstrated by Thomas Hazlett and David Sosa in two academic articles: Was the Fairness Doctrine a 'Chilling Effect'? Evidence from the Post-Deregulation Radio Market, from the Journal of Legal Studies, and "Chilling" the Internet? Lessons from FCC Regulation of Radio Broadcasting, from the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review. (Both are PDF files.)

Is Krugman simply unaware of this empirical research? Or does he secretly yearn for the days when Johnson administration lawyers tried to run right-wing radio stations out of business? I report, you decide.


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