Is Fairness Doctrine on Its Way Back?

This election season, much of the GOP’s difficulties stem from the disaffection of conservative talk radio. For the past two years, while supporting the party on issues such as taxes and judges, talk-show hosts on the right have hammered away at President Bush and Republicans on the party’s handling of items from spending to immigration. It was in large part talk-radio criticism, as well as that of conservative blogs, that led to Bush Administration reversals on the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers and the plans to have a Dubai company manage U.S. ports.

Bush’s recent invitation of talk-radio hosts to the White House only highlights the independence of the medium’s personalities and fans. He had to make his case to them as he would to representatives of any influential bloc of voters. And it’s not clear that he was fully successful. As invitee Laura Ingraham told the New York Times, “I am not an advocate for the GOP. I’m an advocate for conservative ideas.”

But never mind these hosts’ criticisms of Republicans. Never mind the numerous liberal blogs and cable comedy shows providing outlets for the Democratic Party. And never mind the still-powerful liberal-leaning “mainstream” media. Many on the left still believe talk radio gives the GOP, and conservatives in general, an unfair advantage at broadcasting their message. And it’s an advantage that they’d like to correct with regulations mandating their own version of “fairness” over the airwaves.

Over the past few years, prominent activists have joined in a campaign to reinstate the so-called Fairness Doctrine, a federal rule that forced broadcasters to carry programming that fit the governments definition of “balance.” If enacted, this would be a death knell for the current uninhibited format of talk radio, and there are proposals for a “digital fairness doctrine” to cable and the Internet as well.

Search “Fairness Doctrine” on Google and 273,000 entries will surface, many with titles like “The Fairness Doctrine …Why We Need it Back.” There has been a petition to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, sponsored by liberal groups such as Media Matters for America.  Huffington Post blogger Bob Cesca argues that “reinstat[ing] the Fairness Doctrine for the media” should be among the top 10 legislative items should Democrats take control.

But it’s not just activists. For the first time in a decade, prominent politicians are talking about restoring the Fairness Doctrine as well. A bill has been introduced in the House to accomplish this end, and is sponsored by 23 Democratic members, some of who are ranking minority members on powerful House committees. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) said in an interview with the liberal site Salon.com that while “we have a better shot” with blogs, the political climate is “still not as good as it would have been had we not had everything consolidated, and the Fairness Doctrine [had not gone] out the window, and all the things that were so fair.”

Similar sentiments about the “good old days” of the Fairness Doctrine have been expressed by Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) and former Vice President Al Gore, who blamed the doctrine’s repeal for the rise of “Rush Limbaugh and other hate-mongers.” The potential for the return of this discredited rule should be viewed with alarm by conservatives, libertarians, and anyone who values the 1st Amendment

The Fairness Doctrine, initiated by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, mandated that radio and television stations “provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints” on “vitally important controversial issues.” But since there are contrasting views as to what’s “fair,” broadcast stations were left with a few unpleasant options. They could a) provide equal time to overtly liberal and overtly conservative opinions—regardless of the advertising dollars they draw b) be deluged with demands for free response time by aggrieved listeners, or c) shy away from addressing controversial issues. That last option was the one often chosen. The Fairness Doctrine was decried across the political spectrum—by free marketeers and by genuine free-speech liberals such as CBS News president Fred Friendly—for its chilling effects on discussion of issues.

Conservatives were among the biggest losers under the “Fairness Doctrine” regime, although many didn’t realize it at the time. A national conservative talk radio program would have overwhelmed various local stations with hundreds of calls for response time. And the lack of any national conservative broadcast voice ensured that primary source of news for most Americans would be the “objective” reports of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.  The Fairness Doctrine was hard to apply to disguised bias and the omission of important facts on network news.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s FCC got rid of the Fairness Doctrine. This was not, as some leftists characterize it now, a plot for conservatives to dominate AM radio. Reagan probably had no idea who Rush Limbaugh, then a local broadcaster in Sacramento, was. In fact, conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly and the late Reed Irvine and many Republicans in Congress objected to the FCC’s action, saying this would even further diminish their voices from being heard on the Big 3 networks.

But Reagan had faith that conservatives and the truth would prevail in a free market of ideas. Upon vetoing a bill that would have restored the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan said, “[H]istory has shown that the dangers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and competition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.” (HUMAN EVENTS sided correctly with Reagan.)

What neither Reagan nor his conservative critics foresaw was that in a few years, conservatives would actually get their own media. In 1988, Limbaugh, who had moved to New York, syndicated his radio show. He soon became a phenomenal success and was joined by other talk show hosts, the most successful of which have been conservative. AM radio, which had been declared dead in the early ‘80s because of the superior sound of FM for music, was suddenly revived by stimulating talk unleashed by the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal. And the Big 3 networks no longer had a lock on disseminating the news.

Talk radio has proved to be a crucial forum for information that goes beyond politics. On health and science issues, it has presented facts that countered many of the scares-of-the-moment that the establishment media rarely questioned. This has influenced public policy and even saved lives.

There’s no better example of this than recent statements by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Agency for International Development reversing their stands against the pesticide DDT. Just this year, both organizations changed course and now encourage it to be used to fight malaria in the Africa. DDT had eradicated malaria from much of the world until the U.S. banned it in 1972 and other countries soon followed suit. As a result of this flawed action, 2 million adults and children a year have died from malaria over the last decade because DDT wasn’t available to combat the mosquitoes that spread the deadly disease.

Around the time of the ’70s ban, many experts were warning this was exactly what would happen, including Nobel-winning scientist Norman Borlaug. They also pointed out that there was no evidence of harm to humans from DDT, and claims about its effect on wildlife were overblown. But the media uncritically accepted environmentalists’ characterization of the pesticide as “Double Death Twice.” In the ’70s, Dan Rather referred to DDT as “this dangerous chemical” and claimed that DDT’s defenders were arguing on its behalf “in spite of the evidence.”

Accuracy in Media’s Irvine bravely took on Rather and others who reported this misinformation, but he couldn’t compete with Rather’s megaphone. In the early ’90s, however, soon after the Fairness Doctrine was lifted, Limbaugh began telling the real DDT story, and other conservative talkers followed suit. The facts about DDT’s risks and life-saving benefits entered public dialogue as they never had before, and by 2004, even the New York Times Magazine ran a pro-DDT article. Because of talk radio’s role, millions of lives will now be saved when DDT spraying resumes.

But not surprisingly, enviros don’t like being proven wrong, and they’re at the forefront of those trying to silence talk radio by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. Robert Kennedy says that “to restore the Fairness Doctrine” is “the most important environmental law” that could get enacted. And despite some Fairness Doctrine proponents’ claims about the rule promoting more debate, eco-activists like Kennedy and Gore have repeatedly said they want “no debate” about global warming. Many journalists have followed suit, and cover global warming with the same lack of skepticism they had when they reported on the “dangers” of DDT.

This is just one of the reasons why we still need alternative media, and talk radio prime among them. As Brian C. Anderson, author of the thought-provoking “South Park Conservatives,” wrote in City Journal, “Lovers of liberty should expose calls to restore the Fairness Doctrine for the fraudulent power grab they plainly are.”

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