Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, caused a stir recently when she criticized talk radio for its role in stopping the recent immigration bill. Talk radio, she lectured, "pushes people to... extreme views without a lot of information."
Mrs. Feinstein then suggested it might be time to bring back the "Fairness Doctrine, repealed in 1987, that mandated private radio stations devote time to all points of view in discussions of controversial topics. Unfortunately, Mrs. Feinstein chose Orwellian logic: "I remember when there was a fairness doctrine, and I think there was much more serious correct reporting to people."
One wonders what Mrs. Feinstein meant by "correct." Correct to whom? Democratic senators, a government auditor or New York Times editors? Aside from the central issue of stifling free speech, there are a number of things wrong with Mrs. Feinstein's desire to have the government arbitrate what is "fair" and "correct" on your car radio.
Talk radio is as much entertainment as political opinion. It lives or dies by ratings. Those who master the genre — with off-the-wall jokes, mimicry, satire and bombast — prosper and get their political message across. Others don't.
Had liberal talk show hosts of the past, like an Al Franken, Jerry Brown or Mario Cuomo, won far more listeners than Rush Limbaugh, one suspects Mrs. Feinstein would see little need for new laws. And we would probably now be spared the present sour-grapes cries about fairness.
The government is already in the broadcast business with National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. Despite conservative whining about the leftwing biases of NPR and PBS, fortunately no one has succeeded in having their broadcasts monitored or in demanding equal time on them for all views.
More importantly, for reasons not entirely clear, liberals and conservatives tend to excel in different genres of American media. Most successful political radio talk shows are in fact conservative. On the other hand, humorous political TV spoofs, like Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," Bill Maher's "Real Time" or "The Colbert Report," tend to have a liberal bias.
Similarly, the major networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — are liberal bastions. So are most of our motion pictures and documentaries. The most prestigious and oldest grant-giving foundations — Rockefeller, Ford, MacArthur and Guggenheim — are liberal leaning. Likewise are the majority of universities, from the most prestigious, like Harvard, to the largest, such as the California State University system.
Yet, do we want a counter-editorial to everything a Katie Couric chooses to present as news at dinnertime? Or should we demand that Republicans match Democratic numbers on college faculties, or as graduation speakers and grant recipients? Should conservatives be provided an equal-time trailer at the end of "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "Syriana"?
Savvy Americans navigate well enough on their own through our various partisan genres. Liberals flip through the New York Times, tune into NPR on the way to work, and rave about a movie or documentary damning the Iraq war. Conservatives call into Rush or Hannity, check blogs for their news and watch Bill O'Reilly on cable.
There is a sort of irony in the debate over talk radio. Of all our media, it is perhaps the most populist. A radio host requires neither a journalism degree nor political connections. He just needs sheer talent. The unforgiving market — judged by how many tune into your show or call in with questions — alone adjudicates success. Liberals who profess affinity for the little guy should welcome this prairie-fire revolt against the more highbrow New York Times, CBS News or NPR.
Finally, is the new politicking on radio any different from what goes on, in subtler fashion, elsewhere? Liberal media do not consider themselves biased, since selecting what story appears on Page One or leads the evening network news is far more nuanced partisanship than a Michael Savage screaming about the latest liberal transgression.
Yet that does not mean Walter Cronkite's famous on-air declaration that the Vietnam War could not be won was any less political. Or how about Dan Rather's pre-election assurances that a forged memo about George Bush's National Guard service was authentic?
Instead of promoting government audit of our opinion media, liberals should master talk radio and cable news. And conservatives should work harder at providing counter-voices in Hollywood, on the campuses, and amid the major networks and newspapers.
Then let the best men and women win in the free arena of ideas and entertainment.