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The Chicago Sun-Times.

The Plot to Shush Rush
February 5, 2006

By Brian C. Anderson

The left is pushing Congress to restore the Fairness Doctrine, which would kill talk radio and possibly conservative-friendly Fox News, too.

For those who don't remember, the Federal Communications Commission's Fairness Doctrine, formalized in the late '40s but dating back to 1929, required radio and then broadcast television stations to cover "vitally important controversial issues of interest in the community served by the broadcaster" and to provide "opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such issues" -- what came to be known as the "equal time" rule. Any broadcaster who didn't follow these regulations could face fines, free time given to voices that federal regulators felt hadn't gotten fair treatment, and even loss of an operating license. Concern that particular partisan views could dominate what was then a very limited broadcast spectrum, which government felt it had to parcel out with the public interest in mind, drove this meddling. But politicians and advocacy groups frequently used (or abused) the Fairness Doctrine to go after their political enemies, as one former Kennedy administration official acknowledged: "Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too costly to continue."

The doctrine made it hard to program political talk radio in today's Rush Limbaugh-Sean Hannity sense -- boisterously opinionated, unafraid to name names, informative, and, if you disagree with the host's politics, infuriating. If a station ran a show like Limbaugh's, drawing upward of 20 million listeners a week, it would also have to run a lefty alternative, even if -- as has been the case with ratings-challenged Air America in some markets -- it can't get any sponsors. Too risky, most radio execs concluded, and kept opinion programs off the air. In 1980, talk shows of any kind numbered fewer than 100 nationwide.

All that changed in the '80s, when Ronald Reagan's free-market-minded FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine and then dumped it entirely in 1987. Because cable and satellite television and FM radio had vastly expanded the number of television and radio stations, "the new technological abundance," in regulatory theorist Peter Huber's phrase, had robbed the doctrine of any plausible "scarcity" rationale.

That the doctrine was also "chilling to free speech," as FCC head Mark Fowler argued, became crystal clear after it was gone: AM radio exploded with political talk shows. From under 5 percent of all programming, "informational" programming expanded to over 20 percent of the AM mix just seven years after the Fairness Doctrine's demise. Today, more than 1,400 stations feature the talk format exclusively -- and the vast majority broadcast conservative voices, because that's what draws the listeners, desperate for an alternative to the liberal mainstream press.

Rush is a waste of air time?

Small wonder, then, that House Democrats proposed two bills in 2005 to bring the Fairness Doctrine back -- and as a law, rather than a mere agency regulation. New York Democratic representative Louise Slaughter, who introduced the first of the two bills, says that right-ruled radio is a grave threat to American freedoms, "a waste of good broadcast time, and a waste of our airwaves." People "may hear whatever they please and whatever they choose," she tells PBS' Bill Moyers, in a statement as incoherent as it is illiberal. "And of course they have the right to turn it off. But that's not good enough either. The fact is that they need the responsibility of the people who are licensed to use our airwaves judiciously and responsibly to call them to account if they don't." In other words, people can't be trusted with freedom but need the supervision of a paternalist government.

Slaughter doesn't want to re-regulate only radio. When asked by Moyers if she was also proposing the new Fairness Doctrine for Fox News or MSNBC, Slaughter responded: "You bet. . . . Fairness isn't going to hurt anybody." If there's anything liberals hate more than talk radio it's Fox News, which has dominated cable news by appealing to conservative viewers fed up with the networks' liberal bias. New York Democratic representative Maurice Hinchey, sponsor of the second Fairness Doctrine bill, went so far as to host a special Capitol Hill screening of "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," a "documentary" hit job.

It's easy to dismiss the Orwellian policy prescriptions of small-fry like these. But look who else has been talking about the Fairness Doctrine:

"There has been a profound and negative change in the relationship of America's media with America's people," John Kerry told the Boston Globe's Thomas Oliphant after losing the 2004 presidential race.

"This all began, incidentally, when the Fairness Doctrine ended," Kerry maintained. "You would have had a dramatic change in the discussion in this country had we still had a Fairness Doctrine in the course of the last campaign."

Former vice president and Democratic standard-bearer Al Gore, in an overheated October speech bemoaning the purported hollowing out of the American "marketplace of ideas," blamed it in part on the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, after which "Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers began to fill the airwaves." And here's Democratic Party chair Howard Dean, in a 2003 interview, railing against Rupert Murdoch: "I believe we need to re-regulate the media . . . so we can be sure that the American people get moderate, conservative and liberal points of view." Dean noted that he wouldn't need legislation to do this -- he could just appoint "different kinds of people" to the FCC.

Attack from heart of Dem party

Finally, in early 2005, an online petition drive called for Americans to "renew the Fairness Doctrine." The imbalance favoring conservative media voices, especially in talk radio, the petition argued, "results in issues of public importance receiving little or no attention, while others are presented in a manner not conducive to listeners' receiving the facts and range of opinions necessary to make informed decisions." One of the three sponsors of this paternalistic document: Media Matters for America, a left-wing press watchdog group, founded by conservative-turned-lefty David Brock, with help from ex-Clinton advisor John Podesta.

These aren't marginal figures; they're the heart of today's Democratic party. Their calls for reform rest on a preposterous claim: that "media consolidation" has led to a sharp narrowing in the range of viewpoints available to the American people. In an era of newspapers, magazines, books, broadcast radio and television, cable and satellite television, and the Internet -- now joined by satellite radio, podcasts, and even newer forms of "technological abundance" -- the involved citizen has never had more information, more debate, more ideas from all political perspectives at his fingertips. What's really happening is that the left, having lost its media monopoly, has had trouble competing in a true "marketplace of ideas" and wants to shut that marketplace down.

If the Dems take back Congress or the White House, watch out. Nothing would please them more than to drag the country back to the good old days, when liberals didn't have to put up with Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and Bill O'Reilly and Matt Drudge and the countless other upstarts recasting our public debate.

©2006 Chicago Sun-Times


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