Smarting from the bankruptcy of Air America, Democrats are planning a fresh assault on the First Amendment in order to squash conservative talk radio. With Al Franken and his buddies having flopped in the free market competition for radio listeners, liberals in Congress are planning to dredge up the old Fairness Doctrine, an abandoned FCC regulation that would require broadcasters to give equal airtime on controversial issues to opposing viewpoints. This is nothing more than a liberal power play to “Hush Rush.”
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio), chairman of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee, recently announced plans to hold hearings on the resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine to an ultra-liberal audience at the National Conference on Media Reform. Funded by George Soros and attended by such leading liberal intellects as Jane Fonda, Geena Davis and Jesse Jackson, the conference also hosted Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D.-N.Y.) who announced his intent to reintroduce his failed 2005 bill to revive the Fairness Doctrine. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.), a self-described socialist, also revealed plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.
With their majority muscle, all the Democrats need now is a snappy name for the new Fairness Doctrine. How about the “First Amendment Tariff Act”? Right-wing radio hosts must be stopped to save liberal jobs! Better get the ok from big labor first — they have a lock on all that “fair trade” mumbo-jumbo. Maybe the name “Free Speech Affirmative Action” would work. Nothing like a good quota — the Democrats can just mumble “equal opportunity” and “diversity” when they force those stations to accept liberal radio hosts (and then be prepared to shout “racist!” if anyone really objects). Better check with Jesse and Reverend Al on that one though — they have a good thing going and may not want to share it.
Not bad choices for a snazzy new name, but “Title IX for Free Speech” should get the nod. This name has it all — it is soothing, unthreatening and it’s “for” free speech. Better yet, no one can accuse the liberals of being misleading. After all, the new Fairness Doctrine would work just like Title IX for women’s sports — just another mandate for programs with limited demand to replace viable programs that earned their right to exist. Men’s gymnastics, wrestling, and now free speech. We won’t miss it, will we?
In their push to silence conservative broadcasters, Democrats are turning their backs on the damage done to free speech under the old Fairness Doctrine.
The FCC promulgated the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 based on the premise that radio waves were public property and due to the limited radio spectrum available, broadcasters had a duty to provide an equal and balanced forum for all political views. In theory each controversial opinion was to be balanced with an opposing viewpoint. In practice, broadcasters aired their opinions and then were harassed with legal complaints that opposing viewpoints were ignored or inadequately presented. Journalists also complained that both the Kennedy and Nixon administrations used selective enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine by the FCC as a tool to punish radio and television stations that criticized their administrations. To avoid the hassles, many stations took the easier route of no longer airing any controversial opinions and the result was banal programming.
Democrats are counting on the same result today. Catching radio stations between the ambiguous requirement of airing “both sides” (whatever that means), and broadcasting liberal pap to an empty audience, the Left has it covered. Whether Air America silences Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingram by taking their airtime with a congressional mandate, or the stations throw in the towel and abandon political talk radio, the score is the same: the Left 1, free speech 0.
Broadcasters challenged the old Fairness Doctrine on First Amendment grounds as an unreasonable restriction on free speech, but in 1969 the Warren Court ruled in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC that the Fairness Doctrine was legal based on the limited amount of public airwaves. Apparently the court’s copy of the First Amendment was smudged. You know, the part that says: “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech, or of the press….” Given the vast amounts of additional broadcast spectrum today (think cable, internet and satellite) and the propensity of the current Supreme Court to actually read the Constitution, it is very unlikely that a similar result would be reached today.
The FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 as part of the Reagan revolution’s efforts to reduce the regulatory reach of the federal government. The FCC agreed with the broadcasters that the doctrine was having a “chilling effect” on free speech and served to quell political debate rather than encourage it. Contrary to the dire predictions of many that free speech would be impaired, talk radio then rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Fairness Doctrine and the airwaves were filled with core political speech to a degree never before seen. Starved for conservative opinion after years of liberal commentary passed off as “news” by the mainstream media, listeners strongly favored right wing radio programs.
Alarmed by the existence of any outlets for conservative opinion, liberals have tried for years without success to revive the Fairness Doctrine, but with the new Democrat majority in Congress, the prospects for tanking the First Amendment have never looked so good. Track overseas calls to Al Qaeda operatives? No way! Censor conservatives by mandating equal radio time for liberals? No problem!
Putting aside the flagrant violations of the First Amendment, compliance with a new Fairness Doctrine would be a nightmare. What constitutes an opposing viewpoint? Who gets to present that viewpoint? In our contentious and diverse world of politics, there are few issues which only have two sides. Is Cindy Sheehan’s view on the Iraq War the same as Hillary Clinton’s? Does Hillary get to come back and revise her opinion (again) after the latest poll? Is the naked “cut and run” policy of John Murtha the same as the nuanced “redeployment” of Monsieur Kerry? I suppose it depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is….
One meaning is clear however: when liberals say “equal access,” they really mean they’re gunning for a quota and consequences be damned. The better qualified students brushed aside by affirmative action? Mere collateral damage. The men’s sports permanently benched by Title IX? Unfortunate casualties. Free speech stiff-armed off the field by the new Fairness Doctrine? Well, it’s not like you couldn’t see it coming.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter