In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission began enforcing what it called the “Fairness Doctrine.” Every broadcaster, as a condition of its spectrum license, was obliged to balance its programming politically, giving equal time to opposing views. Under President Reagan in 1987, the commission dropped the doctrine, arguing that free speech was a more important principle than regulated balance and that the growing number of cable channels provided enough outlets for all opinions. This opened up the then-moribund AM stations to political talk. Had the Fairness Doctrine been enforced, we would not now know who Rush Limbaugh is.
In February 2009, with a lot of other worrying things happening in America, Limbaugh wrote an open letter to Barack Obama in the Wall Street Journal urging the president to avoid the temptation to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, or to make any new FCC rules on diversity of ownership or public-interest programming. Limbaugh argued that free speech created economic value. Left to their own devices, radio and television stations could find their own audiences with whatever opinions they pleased. “What will it be,” he asked, “government-imposed censorship disguised as ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’? Or will the arena of ideas remain a free market?”
At the time, House Republicans were worried enough about the Fairness Doctrine that they introduced legislation preventing any future Congress or president from enforcing it. In 2011 the FCC finally scrubbed it from its rule book entirely. “The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas,” said Julius Genachowski, the FCC’s then chairman, “and was properly abandoned over two decades ago.” Agreed, then. Markets thrive when broadcasters can say what they want. Much of the value in news broadcasting—Fox (FOXA), MSNBC (CMCSA)—has been built out of selling ads around full-throated bias.
This puts the Republican Party in a funny position now. Meeting in Boston today, the Republican National Committee voted to prohibit CNN (TWX) and NBC (CMCSA) from airing Republican primary debates unless the two networks drop plans to feature Hillary Clinton. CNN has a Clinton documentary scheduled, and NBC is producing a miniseries about her life starring Diane Lane. “These programming decisions are an attempt to show political favoritism,” reads a statement from the RNC, “and put a thumb on the scales for the next presidential election.”
The committee is failing to recognize that CNN and NBC, like Limbaugh’s AM radio show, are for-profit institutions. They may well be biased, but they don’t produce what they don’t think they can get people to watch. If NBC makes six hours of Diane Lane-as-Hillary Clinton and no one tunes in, someone at NBC is going to get fired.
This means the RNC has a much bigger problem than it’s admitting. Its problem is not that CNN and NBC are biased, it’s that Clinton is popular. People want to know about her, and CNN and NBC think they can serve that market demand with some programming, then sell ads against it. This problem—viewer demand for more Hillary—should terrify the Republicans far more than a little media bias. And they can’t fix it with a resolution.