By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Jacoby’s botched analogy

Someone needs to tell Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby about zoning. In arguing against the Fairness Doctrine for over-the-air broadcasters, Jacoby writes:

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.

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  1. AlanF

    Land zoning — good analogy. The people who protest against regulation generally fail to recognize how much they benefit from it.

  2. Tony

    I would agree that breaking up of the corporations who own all the licenses and re-regulating the radio and TV licenses is better than implementing the Fairness Doctrine. But that horse is probably out of the barn, unfortunately. It would be very difficult to break up these institutions now. You would have shareholder revolts; both parties supported deregulation at the time and most still support it now; who would decide how it would be re-regulated; what guarantees would be put in place to make sure that the licenses weren’t just transfered down to other corporations or millionaires, as just another toy to play with. Believe me, I think it is a GREAT idea. But, it isn’t going to happen. Reimplementing the Fairness Doctrine, however, is easier and, therefore, doable, especially with control of the House and Senate in the Democrats’ hands. They know they have been the victim of the elimination of the doctrine and realize it could even the playing field and establish some balance, especially every two years during election season. As well, as you have noted Dan, there are some decent liberal talk hosts which are syndicated nationally that can be put on the air tomorrow if the doctrine was reauthorized. The license owners who programmed talk would just have to choose: Limboob or Inannity … just not both. I also worry about stipulating “diverse, local licensing” in the current political climate. Who’s definition of “diversity” would be the standard? Would it be Democrats? Republicans? The ACLU? The ADL or the NRA? Would licenses in Idaho or New Hampshire be set aside for African- or Chinese-American broadcasters when there are virtually no African or Chinese populations in those states? Who would determine what the definition of “localism” is? A programmer who put on five right wing local talk hosts in a market instead of five syndicated right wing hosts in a market is still limiting the voices of the air but could claim to be local. We’ve seen that happen before, haven’t we?

  3. Rick in Duxbury

    Not to put too fine a point on it but you would be surprised at how loose land use governance is, once you get outside Boston. For example, MGL Ch. 40-A basically says, (among other things) that if you have 5+ acres in a residential neighborhood, you can grow and warehouse pretty much ANYTHING you want for resale, (specifically including vegetables, fruit, cattle, horses and PIGS). I recently learned this the hard way. If you are without political clout or big money, MA is pretty much a banana republic.

  4. mike_b1

    The federal government is the largest landowner in the U.S., with roughly 624 million acres (27%), according to the journalism research group FacsNet. And the government buys, sells, leases and litigates over real estate matters every day.What was Jacoby saying again?

  5. metallicaMobes

    I can’t believe some of you are actually for the stifling of free speech, and the implementation of the fairness doctrine.The Fairness Doctrine would be the end of talk radio. It wouldn’t just mean that some of your precious unviable liberal radio hosts would get their 3 hour blocs as well, you’d have to accomodate *every* kind of view.You’re not for “balance” if you’re for the Farce Doctrine, you’re for squelching those who disagree with. Undefensable piece of legislation, and probably would get thrown out by the Supreme Court.

  6. man who's a localism fan

    In Dan’s earlier post about the FCC’s localism hearing in Maine I mentioned an idea in the comments for a “Fairness Doctrine” applied across an entire market instead of applied at the station level.It was probably lost in the clutter a bit, but I would love to see what y’all think.The gist is that you can have a conservative-talk station in a market, but the owner must also have a corresponding liberal-talk station on a comparable signal. You can weight the concept of “comparable” by AM vs. FM, signal coverage of sheer land area, coverage of population, etc. HD multicast signals could be used but you’d have to weight that against HD Radio receiver penetration into a given market, of course.There’s also a need for a budget ratio of some kind so you can’t starve the corresponding station’s budget for promotions, talent, sales staff, etc. Say 5:1 or something like that.In addition, if the owner of the conserva-talk station doesn’t own a comparable signal, or really doesn’t want to sacrifice a potentially high-profit format (say, sports) on one of their comparable signals…they can instead pay that budget to another owner in the same market that has a comparable signal and is running a liberal-talk format.You’d also parse it so if there’s multiple opposing format stations, they all get weighted amounts of that payout.For example, and this is a loose analogy so bear with me…let’s say Entercom wants to keep conservative talk on WEEI and WRKO, but they don’t want to blow both WMKK and WAAF/WKAF on a liberal talk format. Instead, they can pay out the budget (from the ratio above) to WBUR directly, parsed to give some to WGBH and WUMB for their liberal-talk offerings.Obviously there’s some big government at work here…but on the whole it does seem like a pretty fair way to ensure that there are opposing views finding their way onto the airwaves AND getting enough money & signal reach to actually do something with it. And at the same time you don’t have the problems trying to program a single station to cover both ends of the political spectrum (a looser of an idea with the listeners…which was a big reason why the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in the first place).Does this idea make any sense at all? Could be it designed to have an objective system of rules that would actually work?

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Metallica: Although I’m not in favor of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, the Supreme Court would have to reverse one of its better-known decisions in order to throw it out. And there are far fewer owners today than there were in 1969. Also, the Fairness Doctrine has never gone out of existence — the FCC simply stopped enforcing it.

  8. Tony

    To “metallicaMobes,” I offer the following: 1) The Fairness Doctrine was a broadcaster compliance issue and the law of the land for more than 40 years until it was rescinded in 1987 by the FCC. I’ve been a radio junkie since I was a kid, including listening to talk radio all over the region, and no one ever had a problem with it before. I’ve talked to TONS of broadcasters over the years and those who were in the business before it was rescinded, to a dime, they say the business was better before it was rescinded. 2) The Fairness Doctrine won’t “stifle” free speech – it will guarantee free speech and bring about more programming options to people and more listeners. The radio licenses are OURS – we own them. We lend them out to broadcasters to make billions of dollars off them with little requested in return. All the Fairness Doctrine ever did was require that when covering or discussing political issues, the broadcaster made sure that there is equal coverage of the issue for both sides. Most of the time, that is just two sides, either Republican and Democrat or pro and con. At the worst, it might be four sides, if you gave the Libertarians and Greens the chance to chime in, if they have a role in something. Is that really so hard to do? No, of course it isn’t. And, why shouldn’t the people have access to more than one view? Right now, they have practically only one view and the deception within that one view often goes unanswered. What was the statistic about 73 percent of people who watch FoxNews believe Saddam Hussein caused 9-11? Come on! Wake up. 3) It won’t be the end of talk radio. Take WRKO, for instance. No one is saying they can’t keep Rush on the air. Keep Rush on. But either before or after three hours of Limboob, they need to give another host who has a different perspective three hours of time to balance things out. It is simple as that. Is that so hard? There are PLENTY of options out there to program. And, it works and is profitable. When Tom Leykis was on WRKO and Rush was on WHDH [now WEEI, broadcasting sports], Leykis beat Rush in his first book. So, there were listeners interested and there were profits to be made from a different voice on the air. It brought no harm to the station at all. It works even better when the station hires TWO hosts, ones with opposing views. There won’t be any problems with that and it makes for good radio. Syndicators, in a post-reimplementation of the Fairness Doctrine world, will probably offer new and dynamic programming featuring dual hosts, allowing listeners to get all kinds of different viewpoints, again, instead of just one. They’ll make money, there will be more radio people employed, peace will break out all over the world, and things will be just rosy. Get a grip. To “man who is a localism fan” … nice ideas. And, in the wake of the multi-channels of HD, this might be an option. I still think, however, that programming the time on the main stations would be better though.

  9. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    Dan: I agree with you; you must be right.

  10. Anonymous

    Jacoby is, as usual, a nut. Land is not speech, and the issue is not ownership of land, but freedom of speech. The 1st amendment to the US constitution says nothing about land, but it does reference speech.The point should be obvious: the licensure by the FCC is a limitation on speech. It is the equivalent, in the print media, of the federal government controlling the amount of newsprint that is available, who may buy it, and who may sell it. That’s the point, which Jacoby apparently wishes to ignore. The federal government will prevent me from starting up a 50KW station on AM670 to counter the ravings of Finneran, Lamebrain and Howie Carr. Hence, my free speech rights are being violated.On a technical matter, it is not the case that the spectrum is as limited as has been suggested. Using various technologies (digital, spred spectrum, and others) the number of signals that can be carried within a given band is fairly high (see an issue from IEEE Spectrum a few years ago). The problem is, are the receivers equiped to disambiguate the signals? In the early days of broadcasting, the broadcasters sold receivers that were optimized to receive their signals, and not others. Maybe we’re returning to that with satellite broadcasting, but it could be done for others.–raj

  11. Anonymous

    One question regarding Rush Lamebrane: does ‘RKO have anyone to replace him with? All of the heavy wingnuts seem to have migrated to AM1050 (a loser station if there ever was one).The program director has to come up with something that fills up time. Who? Not Dr. Laura again.–raj

  12. Anonymous

    “Botched analogy”? Does Jacoby employ any other kind?

  13. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    raj: Learn to spell.

  14. beej

    What about the slip of calling Tom Ashbrook John Ashcroft. I know I still prefer The Connection but I wouldn’t call Ashbrook after the AG-turned-lobbyist.

  15. Anonymous

    Speaking of Ashbrook – Yesterday was the first I’ve caught his show in a while – I thought he was at his absolute worst during the Chicago brothel segment. Anyone else notice how nervous he got over the subject of Victorian-era sex?

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