George Will takes aim at the effort led by Dennis Kucinich to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine on the broadcast industry — and its ultimate aim to destroy talk radio. He points out that the heart of this effort is a mistrust by “illiberals” to trust the marketplace and a failure of left-wing radio to appeal to the American broadcast market:
Some illiberal liberals are trying to restore the luridly misnamed Fairness Doctrine, which until 1987 required broadcasters to devote a reasonable amount of time to presenting fairly each side of a controversial issue. The government was empowered to decide how many sides there were, how much time was reasonable and what was fair.
By trying to again empower the government to regulate broadcasting, illiberals reveal their lack of confidence in their ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and their disdain for consumer sovereignty—and hence for the public.
The illiberals’ transparent, and often proclaimed, objective is to silence talk radio. Liberals strenuously and unsuccessfully attempted to compete in that medium—witness the anemia of their Air America. Talk radio barely existed in 1980, when there were fewer than 100 talk shows nationwide. The Fairness Doctrine was scrapped in 1987, and today more than 1,400 stations are entirely devoted to talk formats. Conservatives dominate talk radio—although no more thoroughly than liberals dominate Hollywood, academia and much of the mainstream media.
The Left blames talk radio for many of the nation’s ills. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton and other Democrats openly accused conservative talkers of complicity in generating the hate behind the attack — even before the Clinton administration had fully investigated the terrorist attack. Tom Daschle, then Senate Majority Leader, said that Rush Limbaugh indirectly encouraged people to threaten public officials by stirring up anger.
But that’s not the reason they want to slam the lid on talk radio. The most compelling reason is their inability to compete in the field. With the exception of a couple of national talkers like Ed Schultz and Michael Jackson, they have built no market. Part of that is because the mainstream media has done a much better job disseminating liberal punditry than conservative. That market also gets served on the radio waves by NPR, which normally has good signal coverage in every major market, and which cares little about competition because of its government support. Conservatives turned to talk radio because the mainstream media didn’t meet the market need, and the explosion of growth stunned those who thought that conservatism had petered out in the second term of Ronald Reagan.
Instead of offering a compelling product, liberals want to shut down the market. They want to put government in charge of deciding what comprises each side of an argument, how much time each gets allocated, and so on. In practice, it’s completely unworkable. Radio stations don’t have the time and resources for that kind of accounting, and their already-thin profit margins will disappear entirely if they are forced to air broadcasting that interests no one — as Air America has proven over the last few years. Stations will either go off the air or offer informercials, sports talk, or more top-40 broadcasting.
That’s apparently what people like Kucinich want — an end to debate that operates outside the control of the government. The fact that they complain about their lack of success in a free market for opinions and debate should inform the debate over the Fairness Doctrine. And if not, I expect business to get very brisk at Blog Talk Radio.