Better than a debate over the Fairness Doctrine, though, would be a debate over whether radio and television should be regulated by government in the first place. The standard justification for such regulation is that the airwaves are public property. There are only a finite number of broadcast frequencies, the statists say. If the government didn’t own and license them, the result would be chaos.
Well, the supply of land is finite, too. Yet no one argues that real estate should be nationalized and licensed by the feds. It is obvious that land can be bought and sold in a free market without resulting in anarchy. Why should the broadcast spectrum be any different?
In fact, land is bought and sold in a semi-free market. You’re free to buy a piece of property in a residential zone, but you’re not free to develop it as a Wal-Mart or a toxic-waste pit. The rules governing how you use your land are actually pretty strict. So Jacoby’s analogy isn’t just off a little bit — it’s off 180 degrees.
That said, I agree with Jacoby. We don’t need the Fairness Doctrine. What we do need are real, enforceable limits on ownership of the sort that existed before the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Ensuring diverse, local licensing of those — yes — finite broadcast frequencies would do more to improve what we see and hear than any amount of content-based government regulation.
That’s what Mark Lloyd of the Center for American Progress recently tried to tell Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio’s “On Point.” It took Lloyd several tries to convince Ashbrook that he doesn’t want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but I think Ashcroft finally got it.