July 6, 2007
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, along with a number of leading Democratic senators, including Kerry, Feinstein and Durbin—have rallied for what ought to be alarming for anyone who values the First Amendment, regardless of where you stand politically. Their push for government regulation of speech is one of the most illustrative battles in recent days, because it sheds such a bright light on how the Democratic Party responds to the voicing of ideas they do not like in our country’s increasingly lively interchange through media.
The regulatory measure at the center of the debate is the Orwellian-named “Fairness Doctrine.” Misguided since its inception, the Federal Communication Commission ruled in 1949 and embellished in 1959 a standard that mandated broadcasters present two (or more) sides of all public issues and give equal time to each political candidate for an office (if any candidate was to be given on-air time).
In 1987, recognizing the measure’s chilling effect on speech, the courts ruled that the FCC was no longer obligated to enforce the Fairness Doctrine—and it was subsequently dissolved. Today, Senator Kerry complains that conservative talk show hosts have “been able to squeeze down and squeeze out opinion of opposing views.” But, with all due respect to Senator Kerry, any objective observer looking at the media landscape in the country today would have to conclude that something akin to fairness really came only upon the demise of the Fairness Doctrine.
Even today, the voice and perspective of the left dominates in journalism. In a dramatic illustration of this leftward orientation of mainstream media (MSM), MSNBC reported last month on the political contributions of 144 journalists: 125 gave to Democrats, 17 to Republicans and 2 donated to both parties. This is a ratio of Democrat to Republican of nearly 9 to 1. Whose perspective is it, really, that is at risk of not being heard today?
What happened upon the dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine was an opening up and a leveling of the playing field. The center-right found an opportunity to express itself through a medium that could still reach the masses: talk radio. Rush Limbaugh’s demonstrable ability to entertain while engaging the issues of the day made such programming profitable (for station operators, syndicators and, yes, Rush too) while still being informative. Whatever your opinion of the staid voices of National Public Radio, it shouldn’t surprise us that deregulation increased the talent pool and drew out broadcasters that can draw an audience.
Rush was the clear pioneer for what is now a large and competitive industry—and the talk radio industry is, indeed, led by voices whose views are from the center-right. Frustrated by this enclave of strength, Senator Durbin says in no uncertain terms, “It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they’re in a better position to make a decision.” So Senator Durbin can’t hear his side of the story from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times or The Washington Post?
The push for the return of the Fairness Doctrine would be funny if it weren’t so genuinely frightening. The above-listed establishment media voices are just a fraction of the rapidly-proliferating outlets in what is perhaps the most dynamic media environment ever—at least since the invention of the printing press. Between the growth of cable, satellite radio, the Internet as a text, audio and video medium, e-mail, smart phones and IM—and considering low cost of entry into this new media world—there are few if any perspectives that don’t have ample opportunity to be voiced and heard. For Senators Durbin and Kerry to complain that their side can’t be heard reveals what Michael Medved has called the “totalitarian temptation at the heart of today’s so-called ‘progressive’ agenda.” It’s not a matter of whether the left has a voice. Leading Democrats want to silence alternative voices.
If we want to be clear about what Durbin, Kerry and friends have a hard time with, it is the First Amendment. Industry analysts have long recognized that the initial Fairness Doctrine had a chilling effect on speech. For fear of sanction, broadcasters tended to steer clear of anything that could be construed as controversial. What was lost? Simply the full and free exercise of the First Amendment. To repeat that loss today would be no small matter.
Defenders of “fairness” like California Senator Diane Feinstein, complain that “talk radio is overwhelmingly one way.” Yet it is no more one-way than the overwhelmingly liberal leanings that you get in mainstream news outlets—whose voices are giving at 9 to 1 ratio to Democrat candidates.
What is different is that the point-of-view from today’s talk radio hosts is not carefully concealed—and a good number of American media consumers finds the candor of “perspective journalism” quite refreshing: you know where the person is coming from and you can take their perspective into consideration as they do their craft. (The blog world is dominated by perspective journalism—both of the right and of the left). Conversely, there is a good portion of the country that has long tired of mainstream media bias. Even where MSM makes an effort at objectivity their coverage reveals the fact that, in many respects, we live in two different worlds. When coverage is given to evangelical Christians, for example, they are treated more like a strange object viewed through the camera lens for a National Geographic documentary than a people with a substantive and longstanding contribution to the American fabric.
Through the defensive work of the Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) and the passage of his Broadcaster Freedom Act, the First Amendment looks like it might prevail over Big Brother’s attempt to revive the Fairness Doctrine—at least for today. Similar defensive legislation is moving through the Senate. If there is something good that has come out of the candid words of Durbin, Kerry and friends, it is that we know what current leaders in the Democratic Party are thinking. They flinched only because they knew that the passage of any legislation would face a certain veto on the desk of the president.
If they are given firm control of both houses of Congress as well as the presidency, Democrats should now be expected to bring their favored doctrine back. Government regulation is almost always a bad idea. When it comes to the regulation of speech, it is downright alarming.
Russell Shubin is Deputy Director of National News and Public Affairs for Salem Communications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.