DALLAS (BP)–The buzz on Capitol Hill about reinstating a “fairness” regime for radio brings to mind all sorts of possibilities. Perhaps a syndicated daily talk program co-hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken. Another interesting pair might be Laura Ingraham and Janeane Garofalo.
Stations could provide “balance” to Richard Land’s radio programs by airing shows hosted by atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Or maybe blandness would work: Bill Bennett’s “Muzak in the Morning” featuring home decorating and gardening tips.
Franken and Garofalo are the biggest names featured on Air America, the liberal talk network that was forced to file bankruptcy last year and is attempting a re-launch. But so far, few Americans are tuning in. A group headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta has the stats to prove that liberal or “progressive” radio can’t thrive like conservative talk. The Center for American Progress studied news/talk programming on 257 stations owned by the top five commercial station owners.
The survey, released in June, showed that 91 percent of weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and only 9 percent liberal. In the top 10 markets, conservative talk dominates, with 76 percent of the news/talk programming being conservative, 24 percent liberal. The report recommends stricter media-ownership limits and a requirement that noncompliant stations pay a fee to support public broadcasting. All this in the name of fairness, balance and serving the “public interest.”
But guess what? Our free market system allows the radio consumer to decide what interests him — by turning the dial. Radio provides a public service, but it is a business. To stay afloat, it must draw listeners and advertisers. Conservative talk does this better — much better — than liberal talk. Hence, the calls to force conservative outlets to give liberals equal time. The most discussed fix is a sort of affirmative action program for radio called the Fairness Doctrine.
Members of Congress are laying the groundwork for a serious effort to revive the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation the FCC adopted in 1949 that required broadcast licensees to provide balance when dealing with controversial issues. The government decided how many sides there were to an issue, how much time must be provided to each, and then chose a reasonable and fair way to treat the differences. The doctrine began to unravel in 1985. The remotely defensible rationale for the Fairness Doctrine — scarcity of radio spectrum access — was disappearing, with the burgeoning number and variety of media outlets. Presidential administrations had used the regulation to silence political opponents.
In 1987 President Reagan vetoed Congress’s attempt to restore the Fairness Doctrine, and President George H.W. Bush threatened to veto a second attempt in 1991. Good riddance. This development was a great victory for the deregulation of speech, and it resulted in the cataclysmic success of talk radio, including the launch of Rush Limbaugh’s program, which began syndication 1988.
Today there are more than 1,400 stations that devote most of the day to the talk format. This phenomenon would never have occurred under the Fairness Doctrine’s regime. And now there are calls from some high-profile members of Congress to bring it back.
Talk radio’s giant role in the demise of the recent immigration reform bill was a catalyst, but the latest move to revive the Fairness Doctrine has been in the works since January. Ohio Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich promised, as chairman of the House subcommittee on domestic policy, to hold hearings that will include a look at restoring the Fairness Doctrine. In May, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said, “I believe we need to re-regulate the media.” Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) is also moving to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. He has the support of other members of the House’s so-called Future of American Media Caucus, of which he is a member.
Right now, talk radio is the liberals’ target. It’s the engine of the conservative movement, employing the constitutional tool of free speech to dig into the details of controversial issues. Radio is the perfect medium because it does not demand that busy and productive Americans drop what they’re doing to absorb its message. It’s interactive and populist. Opposing views get a hearing — and often a point by point argument from the host. If talk radio’s critics really wanted both sides of the story aired, they’d regulate television and print media, which leans decidedly liberal. In fact, talk radio is the balance to the 50-plus year liberal dominance in television.
Muzzling talk radio may be the primary rationale behind these efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine. But Christian radio would be a major casualty. Rich Bott, president of the Bott Radio Network of Christian stations, says that a requirement to air both sides of controversial issues would present huge problems for religious broadcasters. He says the definition of “controversial” has changed since the 1980s and that “today it is considered to be ‘controversial’ if a person says it is best for children to have both a mother and a father.”
Under the Fairness Doctrine, the biblical view of homosexuality and all the issues that agenda drives might have to be “balanced” with the opposing position. So would the pro-life view. What about the religion of Islam that is at the root of terrorist attacks on America and other countries? Would Christian-owned stations be required to provide equal time to Islamic imams? Christian radio stations would lose their distinctive and be forced, in the name of balance, to air religious views that are antithetical to Christianity and squelch the salvation message. Station-owners will find themselves combing every message to edit out strong statements of truth and dropping programming that contains a hint of controversy. The result would be watered-down doctrine or no doctrine at all. Commercial stations would lose listeners and advertisers. And listener-supported stations would die for lack of financial support.
Without preemptive legislation, a future president could appoint a majority on the FCC that would reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. The framers of the Constitution knew from experience that government control of speech could lead to tyranny. The Fairness Doctrine is not the first threat that has cropped up to the First Amendment. But it’s one of the most dangerous and it must not return.
Penna Dexter is a board of trustee member with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, a conservative activist and an announcer on the syndicated radio program “Life on the Line” (information available at www.lifeontheline.com). She currently serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas, and as a co-host of “Jerry Johnson Live,” a production of Criswell Communications. She formerly was a co-host of Marlin Maddoux’s “Point of View” syndicated radio program.