Equal Time for Bonzo

Lincoln freed the slaves.

Ronald Reagan freed oppressed broadcasters from the shackles of abusive government regulation.

In the 1980’s, the Reaganite FCC, in the defense of liberty and the American way, began killing regulations and rules that were keeping broadcasters at the poverty level, such as a limitation on the number of commercials per hour.

One of the first of the 10,000 or so FCC statutes keeping station owners in bondage was the so-called Equal Time Rule. A quaint notion with the sexy name of Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934, it specified that U.S. radio and TV stations provide an equivalent opportunity to all political candidates use of the public’s airwaves. The founding fathers of the most powerful educational tool ever conceived, as Ed Murrow called it, feared one vested interest or another could load the dice.

The Equal Time Rule to the Reagan appointees conducting the massacre of 1980-8 seemed to suggest Soviet-style standardization of the way news is presented to the public, ramming both sides of a story down its throat. Yet another example of onerous government overreach imposed by leftists of previous Democratic administrations!

Defenders of the New Unbalanced Journalism argued Equal Time was a job destroyer. Keeping track of who gets how much time on news shows, for example, would be distracting station employees from doing their other more important work, such as selling attack ads.

While the Reaganites were cleaning out the stable, they also managed the disappearance of The Fairness Doctrine, another socialistic concept. Since 1949, this sister in sin had been a public policy stating that broadcasters in all fairness be required to present conflicting views on controversial issues of public importance.

2.

The ending of these twin Marxist-type interventions in the free flow of information once considered vital to an informed electorate was widely hailed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) as the greatest thing to happen to broadcasting since the invention of the commercial.

Largely forgotten now, the deaths of these two journalistic evils are important planks in the canonization of Saint Ronald, the greatest actor ever to become president. Some still say Ronny thought his eight years in the Oval Office was the longest time he ever spent on the set for a movie.

Congress tried to repair the damage caused by the death of Equal Time and The Fairness Doctrine by passing restoring legislation. “This type of content-based regulation by the federal government, in my judgment, is antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Pres. Reagan argued in his veto message of 1987.

Such an unconstitutional intrusion had a chilling effect on their operations, broadcasters concurred.

Anyway, such laws, doctrines and rules cooked up by the bureaucrats in Washington were unnecessary. The free market would take care of any problem.

3.

As we are seeing in the 2016 presidential campaign, the free market is not doing such a great job at providing equal time or fairness.

According to the Tyndall Report, the most respected scorekeeper for broadcast news, the ratio of TV airtime that “ABC World News Tonight” gives to candidates is somewhat skewed. From January to November 2015, for example, it gave Donald Trump 81 minutes versus Bernie Sanders news 1 minute. 81:1!

Something seems wrong about that.

The numbers were equally awesome amongst Republican-only candidates: 234 total minutes for Trump vs. 56 for Jeb!, 54 for Doc Carson, 22 for Rubio and 7 for Ted the Liar.

And this does not include cable network news, which has evolved these nights into a series of commercials interrupted by some footage of a Trump rally.

The Floundering Fathers did not anticipate there would be a modern version of Gresham’s law: Bad news about Trump drives out good news about other candidates chilling.

4.

The Equal Time Rule had its flaws. For example, one minute of Adolf Hitler at a Nuremberg rally is far more unequal to 25 minutes of a Norman Thomas delivering a barnburner.

The Fairness Doctrine itself had more holes than Swiss cheese that a crafty Machiavelli of the airwaves could drive Mack Trucks through. The three commercial networks the Doctrine was specifically aimed at (ABC, CBS, NBC) hated the requirement. The way they interpreted it, if you did a one-hour documentary about the world being round, you had to schedule one hour for the world is flat people. Both of which hurt ratings.

In the name of balance, a show coming to the conclusion that Hitler was a monster would require illustrating his love for dogs.

Many controversial subjects have more than two sides. For example, Doc Carson’s theory of creationism today hypothesizes the world is 4,000 years- old. Or 5,000. Or 6,000. Either way, evolution is a hoax, all a big Pyramid Scheme.

5.

Still Equal Time and The Fairness Doctrine, in my opinion, are better than leaving equal time and fairness to modern news management executives. They all over-cover Donald Trump today even though they know it isn’t kosher. By sticking to their integrity as journalists, they risk being fired by their bosses for being irrelevant, not “ with it,” not giving the public what it wants. Ratings are a gun to the head of even the most pure news chief.

Call it Kitman’s law: What’s good for broadcasters ratings is not necessarily good for the nation.

It’s not higher mathematics to me. The answer is clear. The free market is not working in news. At the risk of us all being turned into socialistic communists, the worse kind, I still want the FCC to bring back Section 315 (the Equal Time Rule), even if The Fairness Doctrine is still too hard to swallow.

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Marvin Kitman
Feb. 25, 2015

Marvin Kitman is the author of “The Making of the Preƒident 1789.” “George Washington’s Expense Account” by Gen. George Washington and Marvin Kitman PFC (Ret.) was the best-selling expense account in publishing history.