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A dying ideal

By Bruce Walker
web posted July 14, 2008

The weak vital signs of free speech has been a hot topic lately.  What is happening outside America is more frightening than what is happening within America.  Mark Steyn in Canada faces legal harassment from "human rights" commissions for impugning, allegedly, Muslims.  Reverend Stephen Boisson, also in our neighbor to the north,  has been ordered to stop expressing his Biblically-based views of homosexuality "in newspapers, by email, on the radio, in public speeches, or on the Internet."  Canada has language similar to our Bill of Rights, but Canadian ideologues and bureaucrats ignore any Canadian heritage of free speech.

Bridget Bardot has been fined again this June by French courts for objecting to the way Muslims treat animals.  This was her fifth prosecution for the crime of saying what she believes.  Bardot has been sentenced to prison, with the sentence suspended, for simply stating that Islam is cruel to animals. The state prosecutor has complained that the court needs to impose a harsher sentence on the starlet next time for saying what she believes. 

Last month a fifteen year old in London was threatened with criminal prosecution for holding a placard which called Scientology a "cult."   London police on the scene informed the youth that he was not allowed to use the word "cult."  This delinquent would have been punished in juvenile court for doing what Bardot did:  Expressing a privately held belief.

The same month Dutch police arrested Gregorius Nekschot for publishing cartoons that allegedly "discriminated against Muslims and people with dark skin."  No less than ten officers were required to handle this dangerous suspect.  In the course of this law enforcement investigation, Nekschot's real name was revealed, making him a target for murder by radical Moslems. 

In 2005, a Swedish pastor was prosecuted, with a possible sentence of two years in prison, for a sermon in which he condemned homosexuality as morally wrong.  The year before that same pastor had been sentenced to one month in jail for making "homophobic" statements in the name of religion.

What is true in Canada, France, Britain, Holland and Sweden is true in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.  Those ten nations, along with America, have long been considered to be the freest on Earth.  Almost every sort of expression imaginable has been allowed for nearly fifty years in those nations from pornography to blasphemy to advocating the violent overthrow of the government.  That is, until now. 

Those once free governments throughout the once free world have rejected the fundamental idea of freedom of thought, speech, and expression.  Citizens of those pale lands no longer have the right to worry publicly about Islam, to accept and to profess belief in the Bible, or to mock those who one believes merit mockery.  Text and speech, pictures and cartoons, even thought has become regulated by the state.  Those individual rights of conscience and cognition which once made us modern is dying around the world, and it is dying most pointedly in Europe and its offspring nations.

An Inconvenient Amendment

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States embraces an idea of free expression which was once accepted throughout the free world – indeed, acceptance is an indispensable element of being considered part of the free world.  The First Amendment was unique when adopted and it has become more than a legal fact:  It has become accepted socially and morally as what America means.  That is, until now.  The "Fairness Doctrine," a bureaucratic attempt to balance the content of expression, is being pushed hard by those who fear free expression in the marketplace of ideas.

Representative Pence may soon have enough signatures to force a vote on House legislation to end the fairness doctrine, but that is unlikely to ever wind its way into law.   When outlets like talk radio are successfully attacked, the tools to end the encroaching tyranny upon free dialogue, independent thought and the right to be contrarian will be distracted and weakened.  That is the goal.  The presumed virtue of uniformity – social consciousness – is already force fed to students in schools and colleges, to people who watch entertainment and news programs, and to bureaucrats in government and charitable empires and their subjects.

When the scattered voices of dissent are cowed or crushed, then minds which do not know they live in prisons will find escape and freedom harder and harder, until it is impossible.  That is the grim lesson of George Orwell, whose dystopian fantasy, 1984, seems less fanciful each year.

Speech codes on college campuses, the beachheads of European censorship in America, penalize expression which manifests a belief, an emotion, or a thought which college bureaucrats deem harmful.  The irony of this is that the very ideologues who protested and demanded the right to offend in the Berkley Free Speech Movement forty-five years ago, now that they are the administrators, want to protect themselves and their allies from being offended by draconian censorship that no one running American colleges in 1963 would have dreamed of imposing upon students or faculty. 

Now, of course, those who dominate colleges, television networks, Hollywood, charitable and government bureaucracies, and practically every vehicle of communicating with America have found a danger which requires swift, firm, coercive government action:  Talk radio must be "fairer."

Dissecting "Fairness"

What is "fairness" supposed to mean?  The current controversy is about the much greater success of conservatives over liberals in the area of talk radio.  But if Congress is going to mandate "fairness" in talk radio, then a threshold question should be to define fairness.  Surely fairness means more than the narrow subject of political ideology.  It would at least mean partisan balance,  a very different thing. 

But would fairness not also include fairness in other areas in which Americans are divided?  It should.  There is a generational battle over Social Security which transcends ideology and political party.  Surely there should be fairness between the young and the old.  There is a social divide between men and women.  That, too, should be considered if we are to allocate radio bandwidth fairly.   Fairness should include all our philosophical, social, cultural, political and other related differences, if government demands fairness to be considered at all.

Someone like Rush Limbaugh, the target of so much of this "Fairness Doctrine" talk, covers a broad range of political, social, intellectual and cultural issues.  Moreover, Rush is consistent only to himself.  He respects older Americans, who have done so much to make America great, but he also tweaks the selfishness of enslaving young Americans to a future Social Security grind wheel.  Does he support the young or the old?  Sometimes he supports the one and sometimes the other.  His sense of right and wrong determines what he says.

The puddle of fairness is muddier still.  Are there only two opposing positions on political and social issues?  European political systems have many political parties, some focusing on "green" issues, some on working class interests, some on Christian values, some on political separatism, and so on.  The position of the Greens often conflicts with those of the industrial workers, yet both are generally perceived on the "Left."  The position of Welsh separatists is typically at odds with traditional Christians, yet many Welsh separatists may be traditional Christians. 

What is "Advocacy"?

Human expression is a galaxy of interactions.  Short political commercials or public service announcements are a bland form of advocacy, but this is the weak broth on the menu of advocacy.  Johnny Carson  mocked the Fairness Doctrine.  He used to portray a bumpkin with a hunter's cap who presented "equal time" which was itself a risible condemnation of the position which the bumpkin advocated.  Nominal advocacy of a position done maliciously can be the most effective form of advocacy for the opposite position. 

Perhaps that should be the answer to radio networks asked to have an equal amount of time for liberals to balance conservatives on talk radio is to have the equivalent of Johnny Carson's bigoted bumpkin "advocating" the liberal position.  Who will regulate what is advocacy and what is satire?  Would a nasty, dull witted liberal with a high, squeaky, nasally voice on his own radio program be "advocacy" of the liberal position?  Who would answer that question? 

Defining the categories in which we need to be fair is like  stacking marbles and defining how we are fair is like herding cats:  Both are profoundly subjective and will be impossibly narrow in practice because the universe of human thought and speech is as broad as the human race.

Expanding the Doctrine

A threshold question in discussing a fairness doctrine for talk radio is this:  Why should any government fairness doctrine include just talk radio?  The legal hook for the current "Fairness Doctrine" is federal regulation of broadcast bandwidth, but the FCC regulates more than just commercial radio broadcast bandwidth.  The fairness doctrine has always included television  and there is every reason that a revitalized fairness doctrine include commercial television as well.  This should not just include news programs like CNN, but entertainment as well.  Nearly all the real advocacy of ideological biases is in commercial television is in entertainment, not news.

A resurrected Fairness Doctrine would require that television entertainment programs which mocked Christianity would be balanced by programs by the same network which promoted Christianity.  It would require that programs which ridiculed free markets be balanced by programs which championed  free markets.  NBC, ABC and CBS, under a real "Fairness Doctrine" would not be allowed to have a hard ideological agenda permeate their entertainment programs.  After all, much of Rush Limbaugh is entertainment, not news – are his enemies willing to exempt those parts of his program which are entertainment and not news?  Who will decide what is entertainment and what is news?

The Fairness Doctrine should go beyond commercial television.  Why exempt PBS and NPR, both of whom also use the people's bandwidth and also use the people's money, from being fair?  Any fairness doctrine must also include such servants of the public as well as private companies.  So the news, the documentaries, the entertainment of PBS and NPR should include as much advocacy of conservative Judeo-Christian values as advocacy of trendy Leftist themes.

But that is only the beginning of a robust "Fairness Doctrine" in America.  The hook for the "Fairness Doctrine" is that frequency bandwidth that belongs to the people is being used, and so the people have the right to demand fairness, because the bandwidth is finite.  But all types of public property are finite.  Tax dollars are as finite as bandwidth.  Why should not the fairness doctrine apply to government subsidies as well?

The news media has historically meant newspapers and magazines.  The government provides these and other news media outlets with many benefits which we ordinary citizens and businesses do not have, like newspapers and magazines with reduced postal rates.  The Supreme Court has mandated that when these vast corporations make mistakes of fact which would have cost other corporations hundred million dollar judgments, those corporations called "news media" can be false with relative impunity.  If the media is treated like a pampered royal among rich corporations, can we not expect it at least to be fair?

Defying Phony "Fairness" by Promoting Real Fairness

Does this mean that we should abandon the idea of fairness in government regulation and action?  Does it mean that we should disregard the power of any medium, including talk radio, to propagandize and to pervert republican democracy?  No, and there are serious things that serious people should propose to make communications – the very heart of any large democracy – work better.

Bandwidth is finite and citizens should have more say in how that is allocated.  Congress and the FCC have done this job poorly.  How about granting each citizen a bandwidth voucher?  Rather than have an impersonal, bloated regulatory agency divvy up bandwidth, give each citizen a "voucher" equal to part of the whole regulated bandwidth, let those citizens grant that voucher to those who favor the values of the donating citizen. This would require the users of bandwidth to compete by presenting systems of values and standards of integrity.  

Buying bandwidth, like buying votes, would be illegal, but winning bandwidth, like winning votes, would be wholesome and good.  Those citizens who favored traditional Judeo-Christian traditions, pro-American news and documentaries, and market driven solutions to problems would be able to dominate television and radio broadcasting because the people would have voted them that share of the people's bandwidth.

Another to help restore fairness in public expression would be to end the unfair advantage that self-defined "news organizations" have over other giant companies.   The Supreme Court, in one of its ghastliest decisions,  made gross inaccuracy with facts by these enormous economic empires immune to torts or regulation.  Congress may lack the power to regulate speech, but it can certainly regulate corporations subsidized by government.  Congress should pass a law that requires that any newspaper that uses lower postage rates or television network that broadcast over the people's airways to be as truthful as any other corporation. False or inaccurate statements should be subject to the same civil liability as other big companies.  Let the New York Times and CNN live by the same rules that tobacco companies and drug companies have been living with for decades.

Fairness should also require that non-profit recipients of taxpayer largess and privileges must be balanced and truthful.  PBS, NPR and taxpayer funded university systems should be required to present both sides of the argument for Darwinism, both positions on the virtue of government social programs, and so on – and suppressing opposing opinions should trigger severe sanctions. 

Those actions would help restore fairness, factuality and balance in public discourse in America, but why stop there?  The totalitarian impulse is creeping across Europe is becoming the accepted norm for how ruling factions handle opponents.  So why not put diplomatic pressure against the increasingly gutless, politically correct nations of the "free" world?  Those nations and peoples who condemn America – horrors! – for keeping the death penalty to punish sadistic men who rape, torture and murder children should be held to account for their notions of human rights.  Congress should enact a law which grants political asylum to refugees from nations which punish those who speak against the elites.

The so-called "Fairness Doctrine," as it exists now, is simply a smokescreen by those who have had a state sanctioned monopoly and who fear competition.  It is like Standard Oil a century ago complaining about wildcatters in the Texas.  The market will sort out imbalance over time, but if the censors of talk radio insist, we should offer them some real proposals for a real Fairness Doctrine. ESR

Bruce Walker has been a published author in print and in electronic media since 1990.  He is a contributing editor to Enter Stage Right and a regular contributor to Conservative Truth, American Daily, Intellectual Conservative, Web Commentary, NewsByUs and Men's News Daily. His first book, Sinisterism: Secular Religion of the Lie by Outskirts Press was published in January 2006.


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