Paul Greenberg

In the finest tradition of Newspeak, the unfair law that backed up this artificial national consensus was called, of course, the Fairness Doctrine. It wasn't a statute but a regulation adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949. On the surface, it seemed the fairest thing in the world. Its operating principle: Any opinion expressed on-air except the most innocuous was open to rebuttal by those who might disagree.

But soon it dawned on the owners of radio and television stations that strong opinions would invite strong rebuttals, and their stations might wind up filling hours of valuable air time with point-and-counterpoint social and political commentary - instead of something as rewarding as advertising. And that the best way to avoid such costly rebuttals was to avoid voicing any strong opinions at all.

The result: It wasn't just the entertainment on television that came to resemble a wasteland but the news programs.

Eventually even the courts caught on to what was happening, and noted the disparity between the pap on the air and what the founders had had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. By 1974, in a unanimous opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court reached the obvious conclusion: "A government-enforced right of access inevitably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate." The unfair Fairness Doctrine was junked in 1987.

Today a wild profusion of opinions has sprouted up on the airwaves, but there are those who would like to tame this rambunctious forum, and return to the old conformity that left their unchallenged. It's so much easier to suppress opposition than have to respond it.

Oh, for the good old days when the natives weren't quite so restless! And what better way to return to that golden age than to revive the Fairness Doctrine?

But it's too late. Dead is dead. Americans have become accustomed to the wide, wild range of opinion out there, which is now spilling out in every direction on the Internet. There is no turning back.

As soon as senators like Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin and John Kerry began suggesting that it was time to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, the reaction was immediate: The U.S. House of Representatives quickly passed a bill, by the impressive margin of 309 to 115, forbidding the FCC to bring the monster back.

There is something about freedom of expression, once tasted, that creates a thirst for more. The best response to an idea one detests is not to suppress it, but to offer a better idea. It's only fair.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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