Political Hay

Reviving a Dinosaur

The Democrats' new obsession with the Fairness Doctrine won't even end up in a museum.

By 7.3.07

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Two weeks ago no one had ever heard of Rep. Maurice Hinchey, save his constituents in the 22nd District of New York and some of his Capitol Hill colleagues. That changed quickly when he managed to get on the evening news to tell the world that he proposed to revive an extinct dinosaur, the Fairness Doctrine.

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission thought it would be a good idea to require "equal time" if someone used the airwaves to speak out on a controversial issue. Television was new and radio dominated, with nearly all stations being on the AM band. If a station sold airtime to one candidate, the FCC decreed that it would be required to offer for sale an equal amount of time to his/her opponent. Before long, the FCC expanded the rule to say that, inasmuch as broadcast licensees held a "public trust" they should "actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues." Fulfilling that rule was a pain in the neck to station managers because it meant giving up otherwise marketable time. Many resorted to brief on-air editorials about barely arguable issues, then airing brief rebuttals if there were any. Most broadcasters sighed with relief at the demise of the Fairness Doctrine.
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The FCC euthanized this dinosaur in the late '80s, during the Reagan years. Soon talk radio was blossoming all over the country. Most popular shows catered to conservative listeners. It is not hard to figure out why. The big television networks build their daily news story budgets around that morning's coverage in the New York Times and, to a lesser extent, the Washington Post. Network radio newscasts (usually five minute cameos) were and are spinoffs from the TV news operations. Then, most newspapers regurgitate whatever started with the Times, the Post, the networks and the Associated Press. Thus, most Americans were getting their news through the left-of-center filter of "Mainstream Media." Talk radio opened suddenly opened new possibilities for conservatives, of which there are many.

Why did the left's big effort at talk radio, Air America, fail to take off and finally collapse into bankruptcy? The reason is that its "natural" audience, consisting of liberals, could satisfy itself with the "MSM," the weekly news magazines, augmented by CNN and MSNBC. They didn't need their own version of talk radio.

Revival of the Fairness Doctrine would have the effect of suffocating talk radio, which may be the purpose behind the Congressional Democrats' floating of the trial balloon. Mr. Hinchey was soon sent to the backbenches from whence he came and Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) hit the airwaves. With a straight face, Sen. Feinstein said, "Talk radio is one-sided and 'explosive.'" She thinks "it pushes people to extreme views without a lot of information." Reminds one of the effect of left-wing blogs.

Senator Durbin, also with a straight face, opined that "...when Americans hear both sides of the story, they're in a better position to decide." Earth to Sen. Durbin: They are getting both sides, every day.

Congresses controlled by the Democrats twice tried to revive the dinosaur. Both bills were vetoed, one by Reagan, one by George H.W. Bush, and there were not enough votes to mount an override effort.

Fortunately, the current trial balloon is floating back to earth as your read this and it has about as much chance of becoming law as did the Democrats' effort to cut off funding for our fighting forces in Iraq.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”