First listen to the appalling Chuck Schumer responding to a question about the proposed Fairness Doctrine (link from Unfair Doctrine):
Let’s summarize. He said:
- I think we should all try to be fair and balanced, don’t you?
- [Radio broadcasts]: It’s not like printing a broadside…Do you think we should allow people to put pornography on the air? Absolutely not.
- The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine, want the FCC to limit pornography on the air.
- But you can’t say “Government, Hands off” in one area to a commercial enterprise, “But you’re allowed to intervene in another.” That’s not consistent.
Schumer is treasure trove to people like me who are always on the lookout for examples of appallingly bad reasoning to use for teaching students logic. Almost any Schumer speech can be milked for at least one lesson—you could probably get half a semester from this bare minute.
Now, nobody knows what any new Fairness Doctrine might be since it is now in its “trial balloon” phase. But we can look to an earlier, abandoned incarnation of it for some clues. We can also glean hints from Schumer’s words.
Schumer thinks we should try to be “Fair & Balanced.” A fine thing, but not something that can be mandated. This is not a question of opinion or morality. For example, supposed on some matter the truth is A (where this is some argument or proposition about a decision we have to make). I set up a newspaper to tout A. Another group, unhappy with the reality of A, says “B is better because it shows we care.” But since A is true, it is absurd for me to publish anything else. It is even more absurd for the government to threaten me with criminal liability for my refusal to explain the merits of B.
Of course, we don’t often know the truth of some thing, but we can make a rational guess. It might be, conditional on some evidence, that A is nearly true, or more than likely true, and that every other alternative to A is less likely to be true. Again, it is absurd for me to publish anything else, and equally or more absurd for the government to intervene.
Can the government ban certain opinions from being published? The answer is yes. In certain circumstances, it is rational to proscribe behavior. Some examples: calls for armed insurrection, pleas for murder or other crimes, for sedition and so on. It is not only right the government should ban these, but it is its duty to do so. The exact limits of opinion that can and should be banned are, of course, unknown, and will be, in some cases, flexibly defined. But in no case does it make sense for the government to say, “Ok, make your plea for murdering the president, but you also have to allow Mr X 5 minutes to offer his counter opinion.” The ludicrousness of any such an argument is apparent. In short, either an idea is banned or it is allowable (a trivial tautology, but one that bears mentioning).
It does not follow that because the vast majority of Americans want to ban or limit pornography from being broadcast, that the government can ban, limit, or regulate any other opinion. Whether or not it is right to ban or limit certain opinions, or what constitutes the definition of those opinions, it does not follow—it is idiotic to propose—that the government should allow airing of the controversial opinion but then require the broadcaster provide time for counter opinions. If that were the case, then we could have a station air Deep Throat followed by a plea for proper dental hygiene.
Proper dental hygiene? Why not “The evils of pornography”? Why not, indeed. Now comes the easiest refutation of any implementation of a Fairness Doctrine. Suppose I say “A is true!” The government wants to say, “You may say A is true, but I mandate that you allow fair time for opponents of A. You shall also bear the expense of this.” Who are the legitimate opponents of A? Those that say B? C?, D, E, F…?
This is the meat of it, friends. Pay attention. In order to enforce any “Fairness” Doctrine, the government will be forced to define the opposite of A. Because, for any matter that is uncertain, there are an infinite or certainly an enormously huge number of alternatives to A. You cannot, in finite time, broadcast every alternative to A even if you wanted to. The only way to mandate broadcasting alternatives to A is by the government dictating—and dictating requires a dictator—what those alternatives are.
For example, in the earlier incarnation of this naked power grab, a prominent person who was “attacked” on the air was to be allowed time to offer his defense. What defines an “attack”? Does any negative opinion about the Great Leader in power constitute an “attack”? The Great Leader proposes a tax increase, and a broadcaster says, “This will negatively effect credit and so make it more difficult to get home loans.” Is this an “attack”? Who can say? The government wants to say. In fact, it must say.
There is no way around this fact: the government must get into the business of defining what an “attack” is, what are its limits, and so on. There is no alternative if you require a Fairness Doctrine. There must come into an existence an office to administer Fairness (I propose “Ministry of Truth”).
Of course, many, like Schumer, would like nothing better than to be in the business of defining what are the limits of opinion on political matters. The reason for this is obvious as it is odious.
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.
It is impossible for any Fairness Doctrine to be consonant with those words. It is not a debatable point: it is logically impossible. Unless, as Schumer and other advocates of the “living constitution” want to do, you change the meaning of the plain-English words “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of the press.” They must interpret this to mean “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of the press unless that law allows us to respond to people who hurt our feelings or otherwise pick on us, or that the speech printed or broadcast is hateful.” This is so absurd that I am shocked that anybody but an academic could ever think it.
Well, that’s enough. I’m already sick of this. There are no subtleties involved in this argument, not anywhere. To see these power-hungry politicians licking their chops over the possibilities due to them because of their recent electoral victory is truly frightening.
Sigh. I didn’t even get to the obvious logical absurdity in Schumer’s phrase “But you can’t say…” I’ll leave that for homework.