Conservatives, the Fairness Doctrine, and Big Tech | National Review

Conservatives, the Fairness Doctrine, and Big Tech | National Review


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Paul Matzko, the editor for technology and innovation at Libertarianism.org, has responded to an essay I wrote for the latest magazine issue of The American Conservative. I’ll just share a few quick thoughts. The central aim of my original essay was to challenge the assertion that today’s attempts to re-think or amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which provides liability protections for Internet platforms — are somehow a betrayal of long-standing conservative principles. I argued that the historical record is much more complicated: “In many of the right’s legacy institutions, the prospect of regulating or breaking up Big Tech is regarded as an affront to any number of long-standing principles . . . . But these arguments both misunderstand conservative principles and betray an ignorance of the conservative movement’s history.” 

The recent example I focus on to make this point is the Fairness Doctrine, a broadcasting and media regulation that mandated some amount of political balance on the radio airwaves through the mid-20th century. The Reagan administration repealed the rule in 1987, but the move was polarizing within the conservative movement; while Reagan and pro-deregulatory voices in his FCC pushed hard for the repeal, they encountered significant resistance from other conservative figures and institutions, including Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, the NRA and Accuracy in Media, and National Review’s own Bill Rusher.

All of this is just to say: Things just aren’t as neat and clean as they’re often made out to be by those who argue that proponents of Big Tech reform are somehow “un-conservative.” Matzko tacitly admits this when he writes that “it is true that conservatives were divided over the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh opposed but National Review publisher Bill Rusher, American Conservative founder Pat Buchanan, and Phyllis Schlafly in favor.” His main argument seems to be that the Fairness Doctrine simply wasn’t a good idea, and that its effects were particularly bad for conservative media. That’s an argument I’m willing to have, but it doesn’t reckon with my main point. 

As I wrote, “practically speaking, the Fairness Doctrine itself is probably an unworkable framework for regulating internet platforms.” At no point did I suggest, or would I ever suggest, that something like the Fairness Doctrine should be brought back today. That would be nonsensical. I simply argued that there is a history of conservative support for using public policy to limit the power of private media monopolies, and that the Fairness Doctrine’s “underlying rationale” — i.e., the principle that beneficiaries of targeted government benefits could be expected to adhere to certain guidelines without violating the Constitution — could help us craft a modern approach to reining in Big Tech without betraying conservative principles. Matzko implicitly cedes my first point. Clearly he disagrees with my second. But I’m not sure he fully understands it. 





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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.