Should Barack Obama
win the presidency and Democrats take full control of Congress, next
year will see a real legislative attempt to bring back the Fairness
Doctrine - and to diminish conservatives' influence on broadcast radio,
the one medium they dominate.
Yes, the Obama campaign said some months back that the candidate
doesn't seek to re-impose this regulation, which, until Ronald Reagan's
FCC phased it out in the 1980s, required TV and radio broadcasters to
give balanced airtime to opposing viewpoints or face steep fines or
even loss of license. But most Democrats - including party elders Nancy
Pelosi, John Kerry and Al Gore - strongly support the idea of mandating
Would a President Obama veto a new Fairness Doctrine if Congress enacted one? It's doubtful.
The Fairness Doctrine was an astonishingly bad idea. It's a
too-tempting power for government to abuse. When the doctrine was in
effect, both Democratic and Republican administrations regularly used
it to harass critics on radio and TV.
Second, a new Fairness Doctrine would drive political talk radio
off the dial. If a station ran a big-audience conservative program
like, say, Laura Ingraham's, it would also have to run a left-leaning
alternative. But liberals don't do well on talk radio, as the failure
of Air America and indeed all other liberal efforts in the medium to
date show. Stations would likely trim back conservative shows so as to
avoid airing unsuccessful liberal ones.
Then there's all the lawyers you'd have to hire to respond to the
regulators measuring how much time you devoted to this topic or that.
Too much risk and hassle, many radio executives would conclude. Why not
switch formats to something less charged - like entertainment or sports
For those who dismiss this threat to freedom of the airwaves as
unlikely, consider how the politics of "fairness" might play out with
the public. A Rasmussen poll last summer found that fully 47 percent of
respondents backed the idea of requiring radio and television stations
to offer "equal amounts of conservative and liberal political
commentary," with 39 percent opposed.
Liberals, Rasmussen found, support a Fairness Doctrine by 54
percent to 26 percent, while Republicans and unaffiliated voters were
more evenly divided. The language of "fairness" is seductive.
Even with control of Washington and public support, Dems would have
a big fight in passing a Fairness Doctrine. Rush Limbaugh & Co.
wouldn't sit by idly and let themselves be regulated into silence,
making the outcome of any battle uncertain. But Obama and the Democrats
also plan other, more subtle regulations that would achieve much the
He and most Democrats want to expand broadcasters' public-interest
duties. One such measure would be to impose greater "local
accountability" on them - requiring stations to carry more local
programming whether the public wants it or not. The reform would entail
setting up community boards to make their demands known when station
licenses come up for renewal. The measure is clearly aimed at national
syndicators like Clear Channel that offer conservative shows. It's a
Fairness Doctrine by subterfuge.
Obama also wants to relicense stations every two years (not eight,
as is the case now), so these monitors would be a constant worry for
stations. Finally, the Democrats also want more minority-owned stations
and plan to intervene in the radio marketplace to ensure that outcome.
It's worth noting, as Jesse Walker does in the latest Reason
magazine, that Trinity Church, the controversial church Obama attended
for many years, is heavily involved in the media-reform movement,
having sought to restore the Fairness Doctrine, prevent media
consolidation and deny licenses to stations that refuse to carry enough
Regrettably, media freedom hasn't been made an issue by the McCain
campaign, perhaps because the maverick senator is himself no fan of
unbridled political speech, as his long support of aggressive
campaign-finance regulation underscores. But the threat to free speech
is real - and profoundly disturbing.