A New Fairness Doctrine? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

The new talking point coming from several folks in mainstream media outlets is that we just have to do something about all these conservative news outlets spreading dishonesty and misinformation about things. How about a new “fairness doctrine”?

This talking point goes way beyond the election results, but just to the very idea that these outlets would be reporting from a different perspective than the one shared by most of these left-leaning outlets. The reality of the situation is that they want to put a stop to conservative media’s wrongthink and force a more progressive news coverage out of those right-leaning outlets.

This is not a new idea. It’s not original in any form. It is simply the latest iteration of the idea that we have to protect the “public airwaves” from “dangerous thinking.”

It popped back up this weekend on Brian Stelter’s hilariously-named show, Reliable Sources, when former Facebook insider Alex Stamos said “And then we have to figure out the OANN and Newsmax problem, you know, these companies have freedom of speech.” That sentence should be a big, red flag on its own, but he continued by saying, “but I’m not sure we need Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and such to be bringing them into tens of millions of homes.”

Max Boot, a columnist at the Washington Post, pointed to an old FCC policy that he wants to see return – the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.”

Well, actually, Max… yes. The fairness doctrine did go wrong. Presidents like Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon would regularly use the fairness doctrine to try and control media coverage of their presidencies. Are you saying you want to give the executive branch back a power that Richard Nixon liked to abuse?

Richard Nixon, noted Fairness Doctrine fan.(AP/Reuters Feed Library)

There is a general rule in politics that I wish more people would follow: If there is a power you don’t want the other side to have, you should not give it to yourself. If you don’t like that Richard Nixon could browbeat journalists with it, maybe you shouldn’t give that power to a possible second coming of Donald Trump.

Thankfully, the fairness doctrine died a relatively quiet death in the 1980s, and most constitutional scholars err on the side against it rather than for it. It has the uncanny ability to lead to censorship, which is something the Founders were adamantly against when they wrote the First Amendment originally. If you don’t want politicians you don’t like to have the power to censor outlets you like, then don’t set the precedent of giving politicians you like the power to censor outlets you don’t like.

Yes, yes, I know. Boot and Stelter are arguing against the spread of misinformation that gets people riled up enough to storm federal government buildings, they’ll say. But they also want a group of unelected bureaucrats to decide which information is good information to air and which information is bad information to air. That is a recipe for absolute disaster, but that’s all good because it’s Joe Biden and the Democrats who will hold power for four years. It’s not like the Democrats might ever actually lose power after that.

Right?