The hue and cry over talk radio continues, as two senior Democrats in the Senate have vowed to pursue regulation of broadcast content, and one Republican in the House will announce legislation opposing it. Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin both argued that government should determine content on radio broadcasts in order to force listeners to hear both sides of an argument:
“It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they’re in a better position to make a decision.”
The Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC discarded in 1985, required broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on controversial political issues. Prior to 1985, government regulations called for broadcasters to “make reasonable judgments in good faith” on how to present multiple viewpoints on controversial issues.
Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she planned to “look at the legal and constitutional aspects of” reviving the Fairness Doctrine.
“I believe very strongly that the airwaves are public and people use these airwaves for profit,” she said. “But there is a responsibility to see that both sides and not just one side of the big public questions of debate of the day are aired and are aired with some modicum of fairness.”
That presumes a number of questionable conclusions, all of which can easily be contested. First, it assumes that the only place anyone hears debate is on talk radio. That’s patently absurd; television has far more reach than radio, and that’s just one medium among many. Never in our history has the average citizen had so many options for information and debate — broadcasts such as terrestrial radio and television, narrowcasts such as satellite radio and TV, newspapers, and most of all, the Internet, with its text, video, and audio. Anyone who wants to hear a counterargument can access it with ease.
That’s the second fallacy. Forcing radio stations to start “balancing” their content won’t mean that listeners will have to hear liberal talk radio. Many of them will tune out altogether. Just the notion of having to force people to listen to the liberal arguments on talk radio shows a certain amount of desperation on the part of Durbin and Feinstein, to say nothing of the implications of government dictating who gets to speak, and when.
That brings us to the most absurd point of all — NPR. The government owns and operates its own radio stations in every market of the nation. In fact, they have over 300 stations nationwide. Do they practice a Fairness Doctrine there? No. The spectrum of hosts and shows at NPR range from centrist to very liberal. If Durbin and Feinstein want to impose a Fairness Doctrine on radio broadcasts, let them start with NPR first.
That’s what makes the report on the supposed imbalance in talk radio from the Center for American Progress so laughable. Their study looks at a grand total of 257 talk-radio stations owned by five broadcasters, which amounts to less than 15% of the 2,000 talk radio stations overall and less than that of NPR alone. They don’t even describe the entirety of the broadcast schedule, deleting mention of shows that they claim to be non-political. One such show, the Tom Leykis syndicated show, cannot possibly be considered anything but liberal talk radio — and yet CAP fails to include Leykis in its study. They also fail to list Michael Jackson, who appears on a Los Angeles talk-radio station owned by Clear Channel.
Take a look at the hours calculated by CAP in its report. Citadel owns 23 talk stations, and yet they only account for a little over half of the broadcast hours on those stations. What’s on the rest of the day? CAP doesn’t tell you. Same for Cumulus, where CAP accounts for less than half of its broadcast hours. Is this how the Fairness Doctrine will be applied as well?
Rep. Mike Pence plans to stop the push towards government intervention in political speech. He will introduce legislation in the House today that will block implementation of the Fairness Doctrine. His remarks today will include the following:
“Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves. It is a dangerous proposal to suggest the government should be in the business of rationing free speech.
“Congress must take action to ensure that this archaic remnant of a bygone era of American radio does not return. There is nothing fair about the Fairness Doctrine.
“During my years in radio and television, I developed a great respect for a free and independent press. Since being in Congress, I have been the recipient of praise and criticism from broadcast media, but it has not changed my fundamental belief that a free and independent press must be vigorously defended by those who love liberty. It is with this in mind that I will introduce the Broadcaster Freedom Act.
“The Broadcaster Freedom Act will prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from prescribing rules, regulations, or policies that will reinstate the requirement that broadcasters present opposing viewpoints in controversial issues of public importance. The Broadcaster Freedom Act will prevent the FCC or any future President from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. This legislation ensures true freedom and fairness will remain on our radio airwaves, and I would encourage my colleagues to cosponsor and support this bill.
“John F. Kennedy stated, ‘We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.'”
The Fairness Doctrine proposes to fix a problem that doesn’t exist by silencing political speech that disfavors the current partisan majority. It’s a breathtaking overreach, and it needs to be stopped.