Anyone who has ever sampled the auditory sewer that is right-wing talk radio can understand the impulse to reinstate the so-called “fairness doctrine,” which, for 38 years, gave the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) the power to regulate broadcast speech, under the guise of balancing public debate. That is just what an improbable coalition of congressional lefties and right wingers is again threatening to do.
It would indeed be satisfying to symbolically rip the tonsils out of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and Bill O’Reilly, the slime masters who dominate national syndication. And it would be equally satisfying to neuter the host of second-rate imitators who plague local radio. But that would be silly and wrong-headed. Here’s why.
Born in 1949, the fairness doctrine was the child of a primitive day, when radio bandwidth was limited and television was still developing. Cable TV, satellite radio, and the Internet — and all that it has spawned: e-mail, search engines, blogs, podcasts, YouTube — were beyond conception. Better known as the equal-time provision, the fairness doctrine called for “ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views.” That sounds reasonable enough, but in both theory and in practice, the fairness doctrine was a bad idea.
Under its guise, political appointees had the right to act as policemen of sorts, regulating broadcasters in a way that would be unthinkable for newspapers and magazines. The government was called upon to regulate political discussion; that discussion might ultimately affect government action. There was a circularity to this that was so contradictory as to be ridiculous.
Thankfully, the doctrine died in 1987, when the Regan-era FCC rightly concluded that cable and other communication innovations would revolutionize how we generate and consume entertainment and information. Since then, at least three congressional attempts to revive the doctrine have failed. We hope this one, spurned by the failure of the compromise-laden immigration-reform bill, will as well.
While certainly far from perfect, that bill was a rare instance of right-left cooperation, led by Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, and Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, of Arizona. And yet the talk-show venom directed at the immigration bill by Limbaugh and company was so toxic that it prompted their fellow reptile, Mississippi Republican senator Trent Lott, to wonder if “talk radio is running America.”
Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who himself suffered outrageous and unfair treatment at the hands of the talk masters during his presidential campaign, favors reinstating equal-time protections. But while he has our sympathy, Kerry, on this issue, is still wrong.
There are a staggering 14,000 radio stations now broadcasting throughout the nation. Talk radio, approximately 90 percent of which has a conservative bent, accounts for not quite four percent of that audience. Limbaugh may command approximately 13 million listeners, but the more-balanced-yet-still-left-sympathetic National Public Radio (NPR) weighs in at 20 million. This analogy isn’t perfect, but it suggests that diversity of opinion in media is not an endangered species.
Moreover, media audiences are not monolithic. There are plenty of lefties and moderates with a taste for the bizarre who tune into Limbaugh to get some kicks from the dark side; and there are scores of hemorrhoid-addled geezers who get their rocks off by ranting to themselves as they tune into NPR while driving to their NRA meeting.