Right not reassured on the threat to talk radio
The Obama administration’s statement Feb. 18 that it will not revive the Fairness Doctrine has not assuaged fears among opponents of the measure, a discarded 1949 mandate that broadcasters present contrasting views on controversial issues.
Instead, conservatives warn that Democrats will try to push through an ambiguously named rule they say would have the same result: silencing conservative talk radio.
“I wouldn’t read anything into this,” host Rush Limbaugh said of a FoxNews.com report that the president is opposed to the Fairness Doctrine. “Of course they’re not going to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. They’re going to call it something else.”
The statement by White House spokesman Ben LaBolt to FoxNews came days after White House adviser David Axelrod refused to rule out a reimposition of the doctrine, which conservatives and even some liberals decry as a form of censorship. Though it was abandoned by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987, debate over the doctrine has reignited in recent weeks as a string of prominent Democrats — including former President Bill Clinton and Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Tom Harkin — have either endorsed the doctrine or broader regulation that would bring more “balance” to the airwaves.
Conservatives have pounced on the comments as evidence Democrats want to crowd out influential syndicated hosts like Mr. Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Capitol Hill Republicans are pushing a bill to bar lawmakers and any future FCC from reviving the Fairness Doctrine. But as no legislation to reinstate it has been introduced, and with Mr. LaBolt’s declaration that Mr. Obama is not pursuing it, some say right-wing talk radio hosts are merely exploiting the Fairness Doctrine to garner ratings.
“I think that should pretty much be the nail in the coffin,” said John Halpin, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that in 2007 published a report on the conservative dominance of talk radio. “No one is interested in regulating or mandating balanced content. We propose ownership diversity and more localism.”
Mr. Halpin said conservatives who accuse the left of trying to silence talk radio are conflating the issues.
“We’re just trying to say that there are downsides to concentrated ownership,” he said. “Too much nationally syndicated programming is harming local needs — it has nothing to do with what particular talk radio hosts are saying, it has to do with local communities.”
Similarly, a House Democrat who in 2005 included the Fairness Doctrine as part of a larger media reform bill plans to leave it out when he introduces it later this session, instead focusing on media ownership caps and new public interest reporting requirements.
“The congressman is focused on reforming the media and the ill effects that are associated with media consolidation,” said Jeff Lieberson, a spokesman for Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York. “That’s not to say that he’s not in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, but I think that from a practical standpoint, this is the most effective way that he thinks he can go about bringing about the change that he thinks is needed.”
The FCC has the authority to act on the doctrine, as well as localism and media ownership is- sues, without Congress. Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the agency, Julius Genachowski, has not publicly discussed his position on the doctrine and did not return a request for comment.
If the doctrine were to return in a new form, FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said it would probably be under the mantle of localism or net neutrality. He noted a current FCC proceeding that raises the idea of community advisory boards that would influence what content broadcasters air and whether they get their licenses renewed.
“Those all sound like noble endeavors until you start examining the underbelly there — the constitutional concerns, which spring from essentially forced speech by the government,” said Mr. McDowell, a Republican.
Despite Mr. LaBolt’s comments, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina plans to force a vote on the Broadcaster Freedom Act this week by offering it as an amendment to a District of Columbia voting rights bill.
“I’m glad President Obama finally confirmed his opposition to the Fairness Doctrine, which attacks the right of free speech on talk radio, but many Democrats in Congress are still pushing it. With the support of the new administration, now is the time for Congress to take a stand against this kind of censorship,” said Mr. DeMint, a Republican.
Doesn’t seem so fair to him: Sen. Jim DeMint