fairness doctrine donald trump

Donald Trump Wrongly Supports the Fairness Doctrine

Donald Trump, who spends a disproportionate amount of his time watching and raging over news and late night television (versus, say, reading about policy or the origins of North Korea’s aggression), has suddenly latched on an antiquated idea that he thinks will force the press and media to fawn over him: The fairness doctrine.

The fairness doctrine mandated that holders of broadcast licenses present issues in what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deemed “honest, equitable, and balanced.”  Ronald Reagan rolled back this requirement for obvious reasons – it trampled on the First Amendment, wrongly created two sides to every story, and allowed the government to restrict criticism of it.

Free Press and the Fairness Doctrine

Obviously, the fairness doctrine conflicts with the First Amendment.  The very nature of a free press mandates that the government cannot in any way shape or control published content.  With the fairness doctrine in place, the government, whether through a genuine commitment to perceived fairness or simple malice, can wholly alter coverage and exert control over the press and media.

Coverage can be altered by curtailing government criticism and instead forcing outlets to have on their shows administration cronies offering little more than predictable propaganda.  Similarly, using the coercive power of the state to enforce fairness threatens outlets and bullies them into government control.  A malicious FCC encouraged by a reckless president could interpret the fairness doctrine as necessitating that the administration get more time than its dissidents – a true authoritarian move.

Bizarrely, Trump not wants to bring back the fairness doctrine, he wants to extend it beyond traditional news outlets and into the realm of late night television.

Late night television is not news.  No people – and not responsible voters – get their information primarily from the likes of Jimmy Kimmel (against whom Trump’s likely railing).  People of intelligence, and I realize this removes Trump from the mentioned population, watch shows for laughs and a good time.  So even the theoretic idea behind the foolish fairness doctrine – that all sides have the equal time to make their cases – doesn’t hold up here.

Instead, it’s a clear desire for Trump to tamp down on criticism.  He wants to restrict the time comedians can spend attacking him and instead mandate that he, or one of his cohorts, can defend him in front of millions (millions who would then turn of the television and grow even more frustrated with the administration).  Trump wants the government to have the unfettered ability to shorten criticism and spew its nonsensical defenses.

There are Not Always Two Sides

Perhaps the fatal conceit of the fairness doctrine is the notion that each story has two sides.  Facts and clear moral happenings do not have two sides and we should not pretend otherwise.

Climate change, a scientific fact, does not have two sides.  GMOs do not have two sides.  Bragging on tape about sexually assaulting women does not have two sides.  Assaulting a reporter because he asked a question does not have two sides.  These facts or happenings are entirely clear cut and do not warrant a defense.

However, the fairness doctrine would force outlets to air defenses by those who simply deny science or excuse predatory behavior.  These defenses, of course, have First Amendment protections and have every right to be aired, but news outlets have every right to deny lending credence to such smut (and the government has no right to force a private company to broadcast a single thing).

Trump, often on the wrong side of one-sided stories (such as a dozen allegations of sexual assault), has every reason to force outlets to empower those who for some reason defend him.  Only by calling for the fairness doctrine can Trump hope to keep mindless voices with undoubted loyalty in the news despite his existing scandals and those that are still to come.

In the end, the government controlling news coverage and the ideas that can be heard invites authoritarianism.  It enables the president and the FCC to muzzle criticism and strengthen the administration’s voice.  Control over the free press empowers those without society’s interests at heart.  It’s a step towards authoritarianism and so it’s little wonder that Trump has embraced the fairness doctrine.

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