July 5, 2007

July 5, 2007 | Commentary on

Balanced talk-radio might get to be bland

Stung by the demise of the "grand bargain" on immigration, some liberal politicians lust for a new Fairness Doctrine to exact a grand revenge on talk radio.

They can't bring the amnesty deal back from the dead, or the Iraq-pullout bill before it. But maybe, they reason, they could do better in the future if they could just put a lid on all that conservative "negativity" on the radio.

Re-enter the Fairness Doctrine, a federal rule that - in the Good Old Days - kept the airwaves freer of, well, feedback from the folks.

Here's hoping these self-styled liberals spend some of their Fourth of July break not only talking to the folks but pondering the consequences of squelching free speech - especially given today's multifaceted free press.

The political fireworks over the Fairness Doctrine look to be postponed for at least a year, thanks to pre-emptive action spearheaded recently by Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. The House voted 309-115 to pass his budget amendment blocking the Federal Communications Commission from forcing broadcasters to balance conservative and liberal content.

Pence himself used to work as a radio talk host. He knows citizens of a free country gravitate to the public affairs shows offering the content they want. If it turns out that lots more prefer, say, Rush Limbaugh to Al Franken, then so be it.

Interestingly, liberals exhibit tremendous concern about Limbaugh and other conservative talkers such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. They betray far less anxiety over the left-leaning talent assembled at government-funded NPR and PBS. (Rest easy, Bill Moyers.)

As Americans, we have to put up with the static of our democratic republic. Sure, there's way too much tear-'em-down heat and not nearly enough build-'em-up light in the American conversation.

A little less crude and rude, please, Mark Levin. And be so kind as to pass the humility and grace, Bill O'Reilly. But we don't need more intimidation, coercion, censorship, political correctness - and drab sameness. This isn't Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

The FCC, guardian of the public airwaves, introduced the Fairness Doctrine in 1949. The idea was to induce television and radio broadcasters to air opinions from all sides of the current big issues. TV was barely crawling, and radio was still in short pants in those pre-FM, pre-cable, pre-satellite, pre-Internet days.

The FCC sculpted the rule into a broad requirement for broadcasters to "afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial matters of public importance."

"Reasonable" and "contrasting" were open to interpretation. And the Fairness Doctrine was subject to hardball abuse by politicians from both parties - Presidents Kennedy and Nixon among them - who sought to cow opponents. Station owners and managers were loath to risk costly legal challenges.

"Rather than foster full and fair discussion of public issues, the real effect of the Fairness Doctrine was to discourage discussion of controversial issues of any kind," notes James Gattuso, a regulatory policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The FCC rescinded the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, deciding the rule was a "government intrusion" into "the editorial discretion of broadcast journalists" that ran counter to the Constitution and the public interest.

Since then, the talk format has boomed, growing from some 400 stations in 1990 to more than 1,400 stations last year. Most shows now lean conservative - the result of market forces, not government dictate.

These shows gave listeners a lot of information about the Senate amnesty bill - facts and views given short shrift within the mainstream media. And the talkers' listeners, in turn, gave their senators an earful about the bill.

Now, some Senate Democrats, such as Majority Whip Dick Durbin, of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein, of California and John Kerry, of Massachusetts - sound increasingly willing to protect their hearing by adjusting the attitude of "one-sided" talk radio.

But the FCC made the right decision 20 years ago. The founders, whose contentious ideas we celebrate each Independence Day, crafted the First Amendment to prevent a meddlesome government from regulating speech by changing its content.

Liberals, especially, need to swallow the impulse to seize the knobs and, like some cabal of ideological hip-hop impresarios, radically remix the talk of the nation.

Ken McIntyre is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Ken McIntyre Senior Editor, The Daily Signal, and Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy
The Daily Signal

First appeared in Spokesman-Review