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Press Release

Talk, Talk, Talk: The Fairness Doctrine

Talk may be cheap, but it doesn’t deserve to be hit with cheap shots.  Yet that’s exactly what some liberals want to do in response to the overwhelming success of conservative talk radio.  Led by the left-wing think tank, Center for American Progress, there’s a growing movement to reinstate the misleadingly named Fairness Doctrine, a rule that would give the government almost unlimited power over what broadcasters, especially those with conservative views, are allowed to say on air. 

The good news, however, is that Rep. Mike Pence (R., IN) has proposed a solution, the Broadcaster Freedom Act.  The Broadcaster Freedom Act would require that the Fairness Doctrine could only be reinstated through congressional action, not through Presidential or FCC fiat.  This bill has already been cosigned by every Republican member of Congress, and Rep. Pence announced plans this week to use a Discharge Petition to force the full House to vote on the measure.

Liberals like to position themselves as defenders of free speech, but in the case of the Fairness Doctrine, the First Amendment is a secondary concern.  The law would force broadcasters to present issues in a “balanced” manner, regardless of audience demand or personal convictions.  And who would decide what’s “balanced?”  Federal bureaucrats, of course.  Proponents of the law don’t care about keeping speech free just as long as it complies with their idea of “fair.” 

And in this case, “fair” is pure doublespeak. Despite the name, it’s about as fair as entering a squirt gun fight with a bazooka.  Ostensibly, the law is supposed to ensure that controversial issues are presented in an evenhanded manner.  But the real reasons have more to do with liberal efforts to stop conservative broadcasting than any concern over the quality of information.

Since the repeal of the original Fairness Doctrine in 1985, when courts began to rule that its tenets violated the right to free speech, conservatives have flourished on talk radio.  Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Neal Boortz, and Glenn Beck currently comprise talk radio’s top five hosts.  Liberal radio, on the other hand, has foundered, most notably in the ongoing financial disaster that is Air America.  Since then, liberals have taken to imitating Calvin from the comic-strip Calvin and Hobbes when he asked, “I know the world isn't fair, but why isn't it ever unfair in my favor?”  If they get their way with the Fairness Doctrine, it just might be. 

Originally, the Doctrine was developed as a way to allocate airtime.  Broadcasting audio was expensive, and the FCC thought it prudent to make sure the airwaves weren’t weighted too heavily toward one side of the political debate. Stations that were deemed not have been “fair” in their broadcasts were threatened with penalties, including the possibility of losing their broadcast license altogether. 

But the result wasn’t what regulators hoped. Because of the difficulty in achieving “balance,” most stations simply avoided programming that might land them in hot water with the FCC.  What was intended to provide for “fair” speech ended up making for no speech.

Eventually, the rule was challenged and brought down in the courts.  Not surprisingly, deregulation resulted in what Thomas Hazlett, former chief economist for the FCC, said calls “a dramatic increase in media coverage of controversial public-policy matters.”  In the absence of government mandates, radio hosts were free to say what they pleased without fear of government of reprisal, and that meant that a variety of previously untried programming could test the talk-radio waters.  Before long, right-wing pundits had found a large, supportive audience.

Liberal efforts to replicate the success of conservative radio, however, ended mostly in failure.  Individual radio hosts haven’t garnered much in the way of ratings victories, and Air America, the all-liberal talk network, recently had to file for bankruptcy.  It might be the lack of liberal talent, or it might be the lack of interest from liberal listeners—but whatever the reason, the market for liberal talk has simply never materialized.  The problem isn’t too few stations, too little content, or even bloviating conservative ideologues. Rather, the issue is that, when it comes to liberal talk, fewer people want to listen.

Having proven unable to play the talk-radio game, the Left’s only remaining hope is to change the rules.  The release of Center for American Progress’s report was followed by support from a number of liberal blogs and approving comments from high-profile Democratic legislators, including Sens. John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein. 

FCC Chair Kevin Martin has stated that he has no plans to reinstate the law. But he won’t sit atop the FCC totem poll forever, and new FCC appointees by a liberal president could easily decide to take action, regardless of what Congress has to say on the matter.  That’s why Rep. Pence has introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act, which would prohibit the Fairness Doctrine from being reinstated without an act of Congress.  Liberals may not like the right’s success on the airwaves, but they’re always free to speak out against it as they please.  Unfortunately, that’s not a freedom they’re willing to share with their ideological opponents. 

Mr. Kibbe is the president of FreedomWorks.