Saturday, March 17, 2012


A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of electrons sacrificed on the twin brouhahas of Rush Limbaugh's over-the-top spewage and Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury moralizing. It's always nice when both sides are outraged on the same basic issue because it shows that there still are points of agreement, even if folks refuse to acknowledge them. Conservatives and Liberals alike have suddenly discovered the First Amendment right to free speech and have deplored censorship. This is a good thing, in my opinion, and it does give me some hope.

Like some other elder liberals, I'm a First Amendment absolutist. I believe the free exchange of ideas, even of the most odious sort, is essential to a free society. In the marketplace of ideas, the bad stuff ultimately gets seen for what it is: bad stuff. With censorship, which, by the way, means government censorship, that doesn't happen.

Today's Sacramento Bee has a pretty good editorial on the issue, even if it's conclusion is surprisingly weak.

Strong opinions often stretch the tolerance of Americans to embrace free speech, even among people who would normally call themselves supporters of the First Amendment. Yet two acts of speech the past several weeks – each very different from one another – have demonstrated why we must embrace the right of all Americans to speak their minds, and how to respond to speech we deem to be offensive. ...

to get Limbaugh off the air in Sacramento and other cities. Limbaugh's supporters, in turn, have accused MoveOn of attempting to "censor" the conservative radio host.

Allegations of censorship have also arisen as many newspapers nationwide have weighed whether or not to run Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strip this week. The series, which concludes today, uses graphic imagery to mock a Texas law requiring women to have an ultrasound before getting an abortion.

Some papers have chosen to run the controversial series on the comics pages, or move it to the opinion pages (as The Bee did). Other newspapers have decided not to run it, resulting in some readers accusing them of censoring Trudeau. ...

In free countries, newspapers and broadcast outlets have the right to determine what kind of opinions they do or do not want to publish or air.

Declining to disseminate a certain opinion does not constitute censorship.

That certainly is correct. Again, censorship is done by the government, not by the purveyors of marketplace information, in these two cases radio stations and news outlets (print or electronic). Still, in a truly free society, that should not be the end of the discussion. In fact, that is where the discussion gets interesting and where The Bee almost gets it right.

MoveOn has every right to call for Limbaugh's removal from radio stations, but frankly, we'd prefer that this group's membership insist that radio stations provide regular opportunities for listeners to rebut commentary by Limbaugh and other commentators. If they don't, broadcast critics will have a stronger argument for going to Congress on legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission to reinstate and start enforcing the Fairness Doctrine again. Up until it was dismantled in 1987, this doctrine required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues and to do so in a manner that, in the FCC's view, was honest, equitable and balanced.

In our view, there shouldn't need to be a law requiring fair comment from broadcasters or any form of media. It's a smart business practice, and should be an ethical obligation.
[Emphasis added]

It may be a smart business practice and an ethical obligation, but it certainly is not observable in modern practice. If it were, Fox Cable News would be out of business, the Sunday "Bobbleheads" would have more women and more actual liberals on their talk shows, and for every Rush Limbaugh diatribe there would be a Rachel Maddow response on the same stations and with the same amount of time allotted.

For those reasons, I sincerely hope that critics of the current system do go to Congress and insist that the Fairness Doctrine be re-instituted. It's one way to ensure that the marketplace of ideas is indeed free and open.



Blogger steve simels said...

For what it's worth, I disagree -- I don't think there's any practical way to put that genie back in the bottle.

You could get the same practical result, however, if the Dems would push legislation breaking up media monopolies. Which is not only doable, but would be popular -- nobody likes monopolies.


11:41 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

I think Simels is right.

If the Fairness Doctrine were reinstituted, every time that a liberal said, "It looks like it will be a sunny day" a 'winger would demand time to rebut the implicit claim that there is global warming. This is not 1975. They know how to game the system, and they do.

If the power of the media were in the hands of average people, or even just in the hands of the moderately wealthy, there would be much more diversity of views. It's not the existence of right wing media that is so damaging to the country. It's that it's possible to exist in a bubble of right-wing media, in which there is never ever a contradiction.

4:59 PM  

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