IT'S IN BILLS on the Hill, and it is being sold to gullible legislators and cause-hungry professional crusaders as the all-American way to promote and protect the free flow of ideas on the airwaves across the land. It's got the kind of label that governments tend to trot out to mask an intrusive policy: "the fairness doctrine."
It is some "free" flow that this doctrine promotes. It sets up the federal government as an official second-guesser of views expressed on the air and of program content in general -- with powers to punish outlets that don't devote enough air time and/or perfectly balanced presentations deemed to be of public importance.
Ralph Nader and David Danner, arguing on today's op-ed page in support of the doctrine, say the government should boot out any broadcaster who doesn't serve up some unspecified amount of news and public service programming or any licensee who says no to a certain advocate of a certain angle of a given issue.
This sort of "fairness" is, on its face, inimical to the interests of sound journalism. As always when we discuss this issue, let us note here that the company that owns this newspaper also owns broadcast facilities in other cities. But, with or without stations, the journalistic First Amendment implications remain the same: free, independent and fair communication of points of view isn't improved by government proctoring and punishing; it is undermined. The original doctrine was put on the books at a time when there were limited broadcasting frequencies, no cable outlets, no computer information networks, no videotapes or audio cassettes, and only rudimentary international standard-band radio communications.
The assumption that Americans today are air-heads who must have certain government-prescribed doses of ideas orally and visually disseminated by every station and channel is repugnant as well as dead wrong. A truly free flow of ideas is one without the U.S. government playing news director or public affairs producer. Lawmakers in Congress should think about this before hopping on the "fairness" bandwagon.