Life, of course, is full of ironies, but what strikes me most recently as such is the coincidence between FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski‘s decision on August 22, 2011 to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and the raging debate about Super Pacs brought on in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Communication Commission. This game-changing Supreme Court decision allows groups of people, including corporations, to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate, so long as there is no coordination with the candidate.
Free speech, it now seems, is no longer a constitutional right; but a matter of money. Those without, are in effect silenced. Scratching my head, I have to ask myself: What’s fair about that? Thanks to Stephen Colbert, the situation was brought into stark, as well as comic, relief when he parodied the new campaign finance rules, setting up his own Super Pac, Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super Pac, and transferred it to his alter ego Jon Stewart.
Not that the Fairness Doctrine has been active over the past 20+ years. Put into place in 1949, the Doctrine was intended to assure that broadcasters not only made room for issues of public importance, but also aired contrasting perspectives. The rational behind the Government’s involvement in broadcasting–notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee of free speech–was the industry’s use of scarce, public airwaves–a rationale that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs FCC. The subsequent expansion of media venues gradually weakened this rationale. In 1987, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler--famous for equating televisions with toasters–repealed the Fairness Doctrine, although it remained on the books until Chairman Genachowski’s recent decision to effectively eliminate it.
Paradoxically, today, while media outlets are plentiful, opportunities to raise one’s voice and be heard are becoming increasingly scarce. For, as Tim Wu has argued in The Master Switch, growth in media has led, time and time again, to vertical integration and greater industry concentration. Likewise, in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Michael Hindman illustrates how, as the number of outlets on the Internet grow, they become more and more concentrated in accordance with a power law. Hence, to gain a platform for expression under these circumstances requires having money, and lots of it.
To appreciate the full impact of this situation, one need only consider the frantic scrambling in the Republican Primary, not so much for votes but for dollars. As the contest shifts from backyard barbecues to the national media, and from policy pronouncements to negative advertising, the candidates chances of success are measured increasingly by the size of their Super PAC’S war chests. In fact, pointing to the $30.2 million that his Super Pac, Restore our Future, has raised, Mitt Romney has triumphantly predicted his own final victory.
Fierce competition, they say, is good for democracy, not just the market. Recent events make me question whether this is always the case. At the very least, this spending spree is wasteful: I can’t help thinking that the amount of money raised by the SuperPacs to promote–what more often than not is–false information far exceeds the meagre $23 million annual budget of the former Office of Technology Assessment, a Congressional agency tasked to seek out the truth, and one that Newt Gringrich, when Speaker of the House, helped to destroy. In his thoroughly engaging bookThe Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, Robert H. Frank cautions against unbridled competition on more theoretical grounds. Employing Darwin as his frame of reference, he argues that such contests are likely to lead to an arms race, in which the winner may benefit in the short run, but the society will lose overall.
Sadly Frank’s scenario sounds all too familiar. With money now a proxy for speech, dialogue has become more and more vacuous, even as speech is no longer free. Could it be time for a new Fairness Doctrine?