Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Despite the absence of any action pending to re-enact the so-called “Fairness Doctrine,” congressional Republicans have nonetheless introduced legislation to prevent its passage, insisting that Democrats are advancing a quiet agenda to silence conservative talk radio.
Whether Americans realize it or not, say Republican lawmakers, “Free speech is under attack.”
For their part, several Democrats have denied there’s any attempt under way to reestablish the “Fairness Doctine,” insisting the GOP is trumping up paranoia that amounts to “much ado about nothing.”
So which is it?
In 1949 the Federal Communications Commission adopted a policy that required broadcasters to devote airtime to the public interest and to air opposing viewpoints when discussing controversial and political issues. The FCC abandoned the policy in 1987, paving the way for talk radio to explode from fewer than 150 stations nationwide to more than 3,000.
The majority of the country’s talk radio programs are politically conservative, prompting some, as WND has reported, to long for a more “balanced” menu.
“For many, many years, we operated under a Fairness Doctrine in this country,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., told Albuquerque radio station KKOB last year. “I think the country was well-served. I think the public discussion was at a higher level and more intelligent in those days than it has become since.”
Former broadcaster Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., however, sees the policy as an attack on First Amendment rights.
“Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves,” Pence has said in opposition to the policy. “It is a dangerous proposal to suggest the government should be in the business of rationing free speech.”
Now Pence is one of 200 Republican legislators to have co-sponsored the Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009, denoted as H.R. 226 in the House of Representatives and S. 34 in the Senate, which seeks to permanently ban the federal government from reinstating the “Fairness Doctrine.”
It’s not the first time Pence has rallied Congress to his cause. In 2007, Pence sponsored an amendment in the U.S. House, which passed by a wide margin and placed a one-year ban on the “Fairness Doctrine.”
At the time, however, many Democrats, led by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., denied any interest in resurrecting the policy and accused Republicans of using the issue as a publicity stunt.
Obey called Pence’s amendment “much ado about nothing” and “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“That’s a completely made-up issue,” the press secretary to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently told Marin Cogan of the New Republic, stressing that Durbin has “no plans, no language, no nothing” to bring the FCC policy back.
Recent developments, however, have led congressional Republicans to believe that Democrats have already begun stealthily slipping the “Fairness Doctrine” back onto the table.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
“Freedom of speech is under attack in this country” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., sponsor of the Senate version of the Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009. “And there’s no place that it’s more visible and easier to see than this idea of the Fairness Doctrine, which several Democratic leaders have already mentioned that they think should be brought back.”
In a joint press conference with DeMint and other co-sponsors of the Act, Pence added, “We believe that while it would be possible to see legislation move in this regard – and there are leading Democrats that control majorities in the House and Senate that have expressed an open interest in doing that – we also want to take the power away from a future administration to do this by the promulgation of regulation.”
The Republicans are citing comments made by prominent Democrats to the press, such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who told WYNC’s Bryan Lehrer Show in 2007, “I think the Fairness Doctrine ought to be there and I also think equal time doctrine ought to come back.”
In June of last year, John Gizzi reported in Human Events a conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in which he asked her if she personally supported revival of the “Fairness Doctrine.”
“Yes,” Pelosi answered.
When Gizzi further pressed her on whether she would permit a vote on the Broadcaster Freedom Act, she answered, “No … the interest in my caucus is the reverse.”
And as recently as December, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. – who serves on the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – told the Palo Alto Daily Post she still believes in the “Fairness Doctrine” and will work on brining it back.
“It should and will affect everyone,” Eshoo pledged.
A manufactured controversy?
At the press conference announcing the Broadcaster Freedom Act, a reporter asked Republicans if the proposed bill – in light of no pending Democratic legislation – wasn’t just a “manufactured controversy” designed to “mobilize the base” of the GOP.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
“I understand that the largest natural resource in Washington, D.C., is cynicism,” answered Pence. “But I prefer to take men and women in public life at their word. The speaker of the House has expressed her support for the Fairness Doctrine, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry, Sen. Dick Durbin, a leader here in the Senate, in widening majorities in their party have expressed their support for this.”
Another reporter questioned whether any movement could be expected on the issue, since President Obama is reportedly against resurrecting the controversial policy.
In fact, Obama’s press secretary told Broadcasting & Cable during the presidential election campaign, “Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters. He considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible.”
DeMint answered the reporter’s question, “There are a lot of promises made during campaigns that are not kept. … We want to make sure that the American people are aware that this threat is there.”
Obama’s words last week did little to reassure Republicans of his viewpoint on the issue, when the president told GOP leaders they need to quit listening to talk radio king Rush Limbaugh.
“You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done,” Obama said.
As WND reported, the Democratic National Congressional Committee also launched a petition to reprimand Limbaugh directly for his criticism of Obama, only to have the commentary section flooded with contributors pummeling the DNCC for the campaign against the popular radio host.
The alleged quiet agenda
Following the accusation by Republican lawmakers that Democrats might launch legislation to renew the “Fairness Doctrine,” a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scoffed at the idea.
“We have enough real problems facing this country that we don’t need to invent ones that don’t exist,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley told the Washington Times. “This is not even close to being on our radar screen.”
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Bush appointee whose term runs through June, however, warned that Democrats may be adopting a stealthier approach to shutting down conservatives on talk radio.
In a speech to the Media Institute in Washington last week, Multichannel News reports, McDowell suggested there are efforts to implement the controversial policy without using the red-flagged “Fairness Doctrine” label.
“That’s just Marketing 101,” McDowell explained. “If your brand is controversial, make it a new brand.”
Instead, McDowell alleged, Democrats will try to disguise their efforts in the name of localism, diversity or network neutrality.
McDowell further suggested that the FCC may already be gearing up to enforce the “Fairness Doctrine” through community advisory boards that help determine local programming. While radio stations use the boards on a voluntary basis now, McDowell warned if the advisory panels become mandatory, “Would not such a policy be akin to a re-imposition of the Doctrine, albeit under a different name and sales pitch?”
At the press conference announcing the Broadcaster Freedom Act, one of the co-sponsors of the Act, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., also warned that Democrats might try “an end around to accomplish the same goal,” only using the words “diversity” and “localism” instead of “Fairness Doctrine.”
“What they’re going to say is they want diversity of viewpoint on the airwaves,” Walden said. “It gets back to the heart of the Fairness Doctrine, which is, to prescribe that through regulation, [which] means there has to be an enforcement mechanism. To have an enforcement mechanism means somebody has to be the gatekeeper of information.”
And while Republicans’ prediction of “Fairness Doctrine” legislation remains unfulfilled and highly speculative, a WND investigation has revealed that McDowell and Walden aren’t just fear-mongering, as some have suggested.
John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama’s transition team
A think tank headed by John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama’s transition team, mapped out a strategy in 2007 for clamping down on talk radio using language that has since been parroted by both the Obama campaign and the new administration’s White House website.
In June of 2007, Podesta’s Center for American Progress released a report titled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” detailing the conservative viewpoint’s dominance on the airwaves and proposing steps for leveling the playing field.
“Our conclusion is that the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio is the result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system,” the report reads, “particularly the complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements for broadcasting, and the relaxation of ownership rules including the requirement of local participation in management.”
The report then demonstrates how radio stations owned locally, or operated by female and minority owners, are statistically more likely to carry liberal political talk shows.
Therefore, the report concludes, the answer to getting equal time for “progressives” lies in mandating “localism” and “diversity” without ever needing to mention the “Fairness Doctrine.”
To accomplish the strategy, the report recommends legislating local and national caps on ownership of commercial radio stations and demanding radio stations regularly prove to the FCC that they are “operating on behalf of the public interest” to maintain their broadcasting license.
And if stations are unwilling to abide by the FCC’s new regulatory standards, the report recommends, they should pay spectrum-use fees directly to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “with clear mandates to support local news and public affairs programming and to cover controversial and political issues in a fair and balanced manner.”
In this way, the report concludes, between $100 million and $250 million could be raised for public radio, which will be compelled to broadcast via the old standards established by the “Fairness Doctrine.”
Since the report’s release in 2007, the Obama camp has twice gone on record advocating positions identical to Podesta’s think tank.
Last summer, in denying the presidential candidate’s support of the “Fairness Doctrine,” Obama’s press secretary said, “Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.”
Further, the White House website lists on its technology agenda page that the president plans to “encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.”
The president’s position and proposals match the language of his transition co-chair’s think tank report almost word-for-word.
And while President Obama has declared no plans to renew the “Fairness Doctrine,” 200 Republicans in Congress are determined not to take any chances.
“I want to take President Obama at his word,” Pence said. “The reality though is, the speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives has indicated that the interest of her caucus was in the reverse. … We also know some of the most prominent members of the U.S. Senate in the Democratic Party have come out in favor of this legislation.”
DeMint added, “If you look at what the Democrats have tried to do with [Internet] neutrality, they’re starting to say this is a public entity, everyone has to be treated equally; and the next step for that is starting to regulate what is said on that. You see traditional ideas and moral convictions being called ‘hate speech.’ Everywhere we see [Democrats] inching in on free speech. The Fairness Doctrine is probably the most visible and understandable, and that’s why we need to draw the line in the sand and help Americans see that they’re free speech is under attack.”
The House version of the Broadcast Freedom Act of 2009, sponsored by Pence and cosponsored by 170 others, is currently referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The Senate version, sponsored by DeMint and cosponsored by 28 others, has been read twice and placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar No. 12 under General Orders.