by Denyse O'Leary
Restrictions could take at least two specific forms - there are doubtless others, but the following two are the most obvious candidates:
1. Vast, vague, and highly punitive laws against "offending" anyone on blogs. This is already a huge current problem for bloggers in Canada, and the idea is gaining popularity among US bureaucrats.
2. Demands for "equal time" (a renewed Fairness Doctrine) in private radio
Essentially, the idea of a Fairness Doctrine is that - to be fair - everyone gets equal time to make their point in each privately owned medium. Historically, the outcome of such a requirement is that media avoid controversy.
The "Fairness Doctrine" was in force in the United States from 1949 to 1987. It was intended to compel radio and TV stations on which someone voluntarily expressed a political opinion to broadcast the other side as well, for "balance." Its general effect was to greatly reduce political discussion.
That's because determining who should have equal time - and under what circumstances - becomes a source of unaffordable litigation. (For example, who says there are only two sides to a question? If 17 groups think they are entitled to equal time, the audience will be long gone and the medium will be very sorry to have ever permitted anyone to speak on any controversial issue.)
In 1987, Congress eliminated The Fairness Doctrine, as a perceived violation of the First Amendment - which of course it was. The First Amendment says nothing about a requirement to present both sides, whether in religion, media, or politics. Here's what it actually says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Washington Post editorialized on June 24, 1987:
The truth is ... that there is no 'fairness' whatever in the 'fairness' doctrine. On the contrary, it is a chilling federal attempt to compel some undefined 'balance' of what ideas radio and television new programs are to include. ... The 'fairness doctrine' undercuts free, independent, sound and responsive journalism -- substituting governmental dictates. That is deceptive, dangerous and, in a democracy, repulsive.
However, faced with a shrinking readership or looming bankruptcy, legacy mainstream media like the Post might incline to a different view today. This file must be watched carefully. See here for example, on how easy it would be to reinstate such a doctrine.
George Will comments:
- these worrywarts say the proliferation of radio, cable, satellite broadcasting and Internet choices allows people to choose their own universe of commentary, which takes us far from the good old days when everyone had the communitarian delight of gathering around the cozy campfire of the NBC-ABC-CBS oligopoly.See also Austin Hill here.
Are they worrying unnecessarily? I've heard enough about the revival of a so-called "fairness doctrine" from enough different sources that I don't discount it.
The heart of the problem is that many legacy media people are poorly equipped to even understand the changes they are facing, let alone respond to them effectively. Some will respond by demands for government bailouts, or even government control.
The costs of getting into blogging, podcasting, videocasting, or social networking are so low now that almost anyone can just make their point online. Some bloggers even make money through Adsense and PayPal. All these new independent media compete with legacy media for viewer time and advertising dollars - among viewers who are free to roam cyberspace planetwide. A far cry from the days when most news came through local sources and was filtered by local opinion leaders.
The culture gap between old media and new media was strikingly described by Canadian civil rights lawyer Ezra Levant, recounting an incident at a conference in Halifax, Canada, earlier this year:
There was a weird moment during the panel when [pro-censorship journalism prof] Miller said that [commentator] Mark Steyn simply wasn't a good journalist -- compared to him, one presumes -- because Miller couldn't find corroboration for one of Steyn's quotes ...
I went to Google as Miller was talking, and found a ton of references for it. ...
It was pretty sad: an ageing journalism professor, looking down his nose at Steyn and accusing Steyn of sloppiness (and disparaging mere bloggers, too), while half the kids in the room could have found what Miller couldn't in about five minutes on the Net. Some "expert" witness.
But that expert witness teaches in a journalism school, and is a legend in his own lunch room.
This incident helps to demonstrate that the partisanship of old media (glaringly evident in the ID controversy) is driven in part by their growing irrelevance.
To sum up: New media are extinguishing old media's monopoly on the gathering and dissemination of news. And - in a symbolic gesture - the old media pundit demonstrates that he cannot even use the most basic tools of the new media!
One thing that many critics of old media fail to grasp is that people are not abandoning old media because they are partisan so much as old media are partisan because people are abandoning them. Abandoned people become emotionally irresponsible.
Legacy mainstream media may well morph into government media (for a government that is sympathetic to their problems, of course). They may defend heavy censorship laws against new media, in the name of "human rights" or "economic recovery." However, incompetence and irrelevance do not magically turn into competence and relevance once government gets behind them.
There is a very good chance that an updated version of a Fairness Doctrine would simply not be viable in the new media environment. But increased regulation of those allowed to broadcast, podcast, blog, et cetera, "in the public interest" is another possibility.
If this is the form the legacy media response takes, it will likely be preceded by a sudden vast run of stories about all the "crises" created or exacerbated by "irresponsible" or "biased" independent news sources like blogs, podcasts, or videocasts. We will be told that "it is best left to the experts" (= legacy media).
Of course, any medium can potentially create a problem, but the heart of the issue is that legacy media are simply losing the ability to either define what is news or control viewer time - and they cannot be expected to see that as a promising development.
Here is one very promising development: French Nobel Prize winner (Literature) Le Clezio recently argued that the Internet could have stopped Hitler. It's very hard to step back in time, and be sure what could have stopped Hitler (or Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or the Rwanda massacre). But in principle, Le Clezio's point is worth considering:
Who knows, if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler's criminal plot would not have succeeded - ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day.This much is true: Fascists then and now have always depended on control of media messages to ensure that the story the public hears is the one they want.
Next: Part 4: Recommendations for the next decade
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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