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Obama Should Play It Smart With The Fairness Doctrine

Steven Titch
October 30, 2008, 12:06pm

There's an old joke: A capitalist and a socialist are working on the side of a road when a rich fellow drives by in a Cadillac. The capitalist says, "Someday, I'll be driving a Cadillac." The socialist replies, "Someday, that guy won't." The joke has new resonance as the election campaign winds down amid talk of redistribution of wealth and a "New New Deal." But even in a redistributionist scheme, the government's got to have money in order to give it away. Given the current economic woes, and despite Barack Obama's plans "to spread the wealth around," if he's elected the tax revenues might just not be there come January. There is considerable speculation that rather than risk creating a deep recession by raising taxes during the current economic downturn, the Obama Administration's first action will be to go after two pieces of legislation–the replacement of secret balloting with a "card-check" on union voting and restoration of the Fairness Doctrine in radio broadcasting. These initiatives cost little in terms of monetary funds, but can risk enormous political capital early in the term. My Reason colleague Shikha Dalmia discusses card-check this week in Forbes. As far as the Fairness Doctrine goes, this, too, could be the among the first chances to see how well a President Obama can stand up to a Congress bent on ramming through an extremely partisan agenda. Abandoned by the Reagan FCC in the 1980s, the Fairness Doctrine stipulated that as part of its licensing requirement, a radio or TV station had to offer equal time to anyone with an opposing viewpoint to an opinion aired by that station. The Fairness Doctrine originated with the Communications Act of 1934, and its authors sought to assure that, given the scarcity of radio and TV spectrum available at the time, no single voice monopolized the airwaves. Perhaps embedded in that concern was the optimistic idea that the nation's TV and radio outlets would become vigorous forums for political debate. But the opposite happened. Saddled with a legal requirement to give all points of view equal time, radio and TV stations shied away from giving any point of view any time at all. After the doctrine was lifted, AM stations, which were steadily losing listeners to FM stereo music stations, not to mention portable tape and CD players (and today, iPods), found conservative commentators, led by Rush Limbaugh, but expanding to include Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, the late Tony Snow and others, attracted new audiences. I don't know what made AM radio so conducive to right-wing thinking. Maybe there are just more conservatives in the radio audience during the daytime. But attempts by liberals, including comedian-cum-Senate-candidate Al Franken, to launch left-leaning talk radio programs foundered. That's why restoration of the Fairness Doctrine is little more than back-door censorship. A law to ban conservative talk radio programs would be unconstitutional on its face. So Congress, via a new Fairness Doctrine, is seeking to remove the commercial environment that has allowed talk radio to thrive. It would force AM radio stations that air Rush Limbaugh's daily three-hour program to reserve three hours of airtime a day for programming that ratings history shows audiences reject. With no audience, no advertising. With no advertising, no business. To remain viable and comply with the Fairness Doctrine, the station owner would have no choice but to dump Rush and find a new format that steered clear of politics. Because the restoration effort is led by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and would be limited to radio (TV and cable public access would continue to be exempt), it comes across as all the more vindictive and retaliatory. Like the socialist in the old joke, Democrats and liberals, rather than strive to cultivate their own forums, want to take away the forums their opponents have. One hopes that the Fairness Doctrine would not survive a First Amendment test, no matter what the make-up of the Supreme Court is should a case ever reach that high. First, although disguised as regulation of the broadcast industry, it's effectively regulation of political speech, which the First Amendment specifically forbids. Second, the rationale behind the Fairness Doctrine no longer applies. Media scarcity is no longer an issue. While a handful of national media companies today control most AM radio stations, they have no lock on information channels. Cable TV, the Internet and now, satellite radio, ended that. That pundits on the right and left both claim the media is biased against their views is as good a gauge there is in measuring the diversity of promulgated opinions. Don't like the attitude of Fox News? Switch to CNN or MSNBC. Third, the liberals' very claim that conservative talk radio wields an unfair influence on public affairs is undermined when the electorate appears ready to give liberal Democrats a greater hand in Congress and elevate a freshman senator with a long liberal voting record to the presidency. Fourth, speaking of satellite radio, that's likely where Limbaugh and his friends will go if the Fairness Doctrine were restored. AM radio, not talk radio, would die. Good government types should think hard about this potential consequence. Aren't you guys the first to go into high dudgeon about the loss of "local voices" every time Clear Channel or Fox purchases another AM station? Above all, if Obama signs on to the Fairness Doctrine push, he risks losing his "post-partisan" label early. And unlike the union card-check issue, opposition could be deeper and broader. As president, Obama will want a few easy wins come the first half of 2009. He should be careful with this one–it is visceral enough to become another "gays-in-the-military" fiasco that bogged down Bill Clinton's first year. He'd be messing with people's entertainment. Not the way you want to start.


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