Apparently, I am one of 9 people in the United States that had never heard of “Duck Dynasty” prior to last week. Even I however, could not miss the furor over remarks by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson and his remarks that homosexuality is “degrading to the human soul” and that African Americans were “better off under Jim Crow.” As one might expect, A&E, which owns Duck Dynasty, promptly suspended Robertson. Also predictably, conservative raised much hue and cry over this, calling it the worst sort of censorship and intolerance.
Normally, I limit my response to this to four words: “Dixie Chicks. Pot. Kettle.”
But to my surprise and delight, I now see conservatives such as Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA), Former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), and Senators David Vitter (R-TX) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) invoking the concepts of the First Amendment embodied in the Fairness Doctrine in defense of Mr. Robertson. Given that Conservatives have decided to revive their perennial boogeyman about the “Return of The Fairness Doctrine,” this staunch defense of the principles of the Fairness Doctrine could not be more timely.
Some more irony savoring worm turning goodness below . . .
Not that any of these conservative bastions invoking the “Madisonian view” of the First Amendment as requiring the government promote diversity of views have called for a return of the Fairness Doctrine by name. In fact, pretty much all of them are on record as opposing the Fairness Doctrine as an evil government intrusion on free speech because TV and radio programmers ought to be able to say and show whatever they like. (See this clip of Sarah Palin in 2009 warning Fox News viewers about the evil plan by Obama to bring back the Fairness Doctrine to squash “people asking the hard questions” about the stimulus package. (starts at about 4:10)).
But the principle these conservatives invoke, that the First Amendment requires the media to reflect a diversity of views, including protecting speakers whose views the mainstream finds shocking and reprehensible, comes directly from the Fairness Doctrine and the Supreme Court case upholding it Red Lion Broadcasting v. Federal Communications Commission.
We might simply stop to savor the irony. Conservatives eliminated the Fairness Doctrine back in the 1980s, and have spent the intervening decades demonizing it as the Liberal effort to censor conservative talk radio (because, of course, suggesting someone other than conservatives should get in a word in edgewise constitutes censorship). Liberals warned that because only a handful of corporations control access to either broadcasting (which is, after all, still limited to a handful of government-selected licensees) or cable (because, even with satellite and telcos, the total universe of programing into your home gets selected by the of 3-6 megacorps available to you. W00t w00t!) controversial (or worse, anti-corporate) views would suffer private censorship.
In the 1980s, elimination of the Fairness Doctrine lead directly to conservative talk radio. Angry white dudes flocked to hear folks like Rush and the radio broadcasters embraced conservative talk with a passion. Liberals warned that the lack of diversity of opinions on the airwaves undermined the vital First Amendment interest in promoting genuine debate about important issues critical to democracy. Conservatives bristled at the very notion that the First Amendment had anything to do with protecting dissenting views in the mass media, holding up their triumph in the marketplace as proof of the inherent superiority of conservative ideals. So what if two giant radio corporations – Clear Chanel and Cummulus – could effectively blacklist the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves for criticizing President Bush and the Iraq war by removing them from their playlists? The market hath spoken! No First Amendment Issue here folks!
But now the winds of fashion turn. Demographics and markets change. Now it is social conservatives who find their statements and world view at odds with the majority of the country and – of particular importance here – with the most coveted demographics for advertisers. So when Duck Dynasty Dude makes comments that potentially offend that high end demographic and the bulk of A&E’s potential audience, A&E does the financially prudent thing and throws Duck Dynasty Dude under the bus.
Because it’s not just about the audience of Duck Dynasty for A&E. It’s about A&E’s brand. Rush Limbaugh and the other folks on talk radio can say stuff like this (and worse) because this is their brand. Ditto Fox News. But A&E does not want to confine itself to the 50+ social conservative demo. So it’s off to the woodshed for Duck Dynasty dude. The market hath spoken!
Now it’s conservatives who invoke the First Amendment principles they previously despised when they were riding high, and liberals who gleefully respond that the First Amendment doesn’t have anything to do with whether a private network fires a performer when that performer pisses off a valuable audience segment. It ain’t about fairness. It ain’t about the First Amendment. It’s about the market, and the market hath spoken!
A Wake Up For Conservatives and a Warning to Liberals.
No one particularly wants to see a return of the Fairness Doctrine (despite Republican fear mongering to the contrary). It’s mechanical tit-for-tat response seems ill-suited to the modern world even for those who defend the idea that our mass media ought to reflect a diversity of views beyond what a handful of owners find profitable. But the overall concern for the First Amendment principles Governor Jindal, former Governor Palin, and other conservatives have evoked in defense of Duck Dynasty Dude finds its home in certain FCC rules supported by liberals and progressives – notably the media ownership limits.
To be fair, some conservatives have supported media ownership limits in the past, and continue to do so. These conservative groups figured out what other conservatives have just discovered – that in a world where a very few corporations call the shots on what Americans see and hear you can find yourself squeezed out of the public square with little notice and no appeal.
At the same time, liberals and progressives ought to take a little warning amidst the schadenfreude. It’s fun to repeat back to conservatives that “First Amendment protects you from government censorship, not from getting fired,” but that same pendulum swings the other way. Liberals and progressives who have opposed “English only workplace” or promoted “Anti-SLAPP” laws do so out of the same concern for First Amendment values that have social conservatives screaming now. The First Amendment’s promise of a robust marketplace of ideas becomes an empty promise if concentrations of corporate power can accomplish the same ends of silencing protest or unpopular views.
This does not mean that Duck Dynasty Dude gets a free pass, but it does mean not treating Governor Jindal as total imbecile for invoking a time “when networks cared about the First Amendment” as a reason to air view the vast majority of Americans find repulsive.
Besides, it’s a lot more fun and snarky to point out that the time when “networks cared about the First Amendment” was between 1969, when the Supreme Court decided Red Lion, and 1985, when the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine and that Jindal and his buddies are simply reaping what they sowed.
A Final Word About Network Neutrality
Of course, many conservatives have fled what they consider the constrained world of broadcast and cable for the open Internet. Glenn Beck and Laura Ingram, for example, both relocated to cyberspace when they found their views no longer commercial enough for cable or talk radio.
Now let us suppose that the FCC loses it’s court case on network neutrality, and that Judge Silbeman affirms Verizon’s right to block program with which it disagrees ideologically on First Amendment grounds. As with cable television, broadcast television, and radio, the number of entities that actually provide broadband access (as opposed to the content) are relatively tiny. It is a subset of the universe of companies that provide you with cable TV.
Right now, no one pressures Comcast or AT&T to block Glenn Beck or anyone else because we accept the Internet as an open medium. But if these companies have the capacity to control what comes across their wires, people will pressure them to do just that. And as we have just seen, the pendulum of fashion swings. If Comcast or Verizon or any other company makes the cold-hearted calculation that letting people access your video stream is affirmatively costing them money and that blocking that stream will make them money then, absent a rule to the contrary, they will do the profit maximizing thing and throw the Glenn Beck’s of the world under the bus as readily as they did in the analog video world.
Conservatives like to whip up a frenzy of resistance to network neutrality by calling it “the Fairness Doctrine of the Internet.” While this has no basis in reality, conservatives might want to take it as something of a wake up call. They can disappear from Duck Dynasty today when their views cost their corporate sponsors money. Without a no blocking rule like network neutrality, they could disappear from the Internet tomorrow for the same reason. If they do not want to wistfully remember a time when “the Internet was about First Amendment freedom,” perhaps they should reconsider their opposition to network neutrality.
Stay tuned . . . .