EDITORIAL: Careful, Mr. President: New Fairness Doctrine would cut both ways

York Dispatch

Peeved that late-night talk show hosts are giving him too much attention during their comedic opening monologues, President Donald Trump recently made a veiled reference to bringing back the Fairness Doctrine.

“More and more people are suggesting that Republicans (and me) should be given Equal Time on T.V. when you look at the one-sided coverage,” the president recently posted on his Twitter account. “Always anti-Trump,” a second tweet read. “Should we get equal time?”

First of all, it is disconcerting that Trump seems to have so much free time to follow the late-night talk shows, what with all of the time he spends playing golf.

But more to the point: Careful what you wish for, Mr. President.

Because if the nation were to revert to some sort of Fairness Doctrine — and it shouldn’t — it would have a far greater effect on the media outlets that openly support the president and his party than those he sees as unfair.

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But let’s define our terms. While conservatives have done a stellar job of pasting the vast majority of news outlets as “the liberal media,” there are actually very few that fit this description.

It’s true.

Yes, MSNBC’s evening lineup is unabashedly liberal. And yes, the editorial pages of news organizations like the Washington Post and the New York Times skew dependably left. But both papers have excellent, largely down-the-middle news coverage. (Much like the Wall Street Journal, which is staunchly conservative editorially, but provides fair, insightful reporting on its news pages.)

Conservatives generally define “liberal media” as any media that aren’t conservative. Just look at an alternative putdown: “the mainstream media.” Mainstream is liberal? This brings to mind a complaint against Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush during the 2016 GOP nominations: That he was “too moderate.” When moderation is your enemy, it might be time to recalibrate your political signposts.

The irony, of course, is that there is a very robust conservative media. And its mushrooming success was preceded by the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC policy that required broadcast outlets to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.”

Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, posted a video Tuesday thanking HBO's John Oliver for putting his picture and name on national television.

Almost one year to the day after the FCC abolished the doctrine in 1987 (abetted by President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a bill that sought to make the policy a law), radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh launched his nationally syndicated program, planting a conservative flag in the media landscape that waves profitably to this day.

A thousand Rush wannabes, not to mention Fox News, soon followed.

True liberal counterparts, like the short-lived Air America radio network, have never garnered the popularity or financial success that conservative media enjoy. Which is perhaps why traditional media outlets were cast by conservative broadcasters as the ideological enemy.

But let’s not pretend legitimate news outlets like NPR, the major networks, or most traditional newspapers have anything approaching the active partisan agenda of conservative media.

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So it would be to the detriment not of mainstream media, but of AM talk radio, “Fox & Friends” and, we imagine, many other broadcasts the president is fond of were he to successfully reinstate a Fairness Doctrine.

One of Trump’s favorite punching bags, for example, CNN, during its 2016 election coverage gave prominent roles to Trump supporters like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany (now spokesperson for the Republican National Committee). There was little such fairness and balance in conservative media circles. Which would have farther to go to balance its coverage?

One last irony is that no one has benefited more from unequal time than Trump himself. His outsized dominance of media coverage during the Republican presidential nomination and general election was a major factor in his upset victory.

Fairness Doctrines may be well intended (we’d all benefit from exposure to multiple sides of multiple issues) but they would be remarkably difficult to enforce. A population that can no longer agree as to basic facts is hardly going to come to consensus on the fair presentation thereof.

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A far simpler solution to the president’s concerns, of course, would be for him to turn off the television and focus his attention where it belongs: the fire-ravaged West Coast, still struggling Puerto Rico, improving rather than undermining the nation’s health insurance, easing rather than exacerbating tensions with North Korea and Iran, acknowledging and responding to Russian interference in U.S. elections.

It’s a long list. And a little progress in one or two of these areas might give the late-night talk show hosts a little less to joke about.