WASHINGTON – As the National Religious Broadcasters convened today in Nashville, an ominous shroud cast by political chatter about the reimposition of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” in the nation’s capital hung over the gathering.
NRB President Frank Wright said he sees the move as a credible threat under a Democrat-dominated Congress and with President Obama in the White House.
“And we have a personal concern,” Wright told Broadcasting & Cable. “The only radio station that ever lost its license under the fairness doctrine regime was a Christian radio station in Red Lion, Pa. We are only responding now to the statements the Democrats themselves are making.”
Representing 1,400 organizations, including large ministries and TV and radio stations, NRB said it is “girding itself for a major battle over broadcasting freedoms,” and was prepared to go to court, lobby Congress, or take its message to the public.
“We have talked before about many of these issues, but now, with the shift in the political landscape, I think these same things have a much higher probability of being enacted or at least having legislation and hearings and debates, and on the regulation side at the FCC,” said Wright.
He said the new political climate doesn’t just threaten broadcasters, but even churches that have no broadcast outlet.
“The fairness doctrine has a tremendous potential for constraining free speech, but hate crimes (legislation) has the potential of criminalizing it,” he said. “In the short run, the fairness doctrine has the immediate threat of being applied to Christian broadcasters and to the church in a very deleterious way. Hate crimes legislation, if that is enacted, will evolve over time and bleed over into speech and have a negative effect, but not right away. The fairness doctrine will have a negative impact the day it is implemented.”
He said he expects religious broadcasters, largely Christian, to be particularly hard hit because of the doctrine’s requirement for so-called “balance.” If an opposing view must be found for every matter of controversy, Christian broadcasters could find themselves in the unenviable and untenable position of seeking out other religious viewpoints – Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist – to counter what ministers of the Gospel say on the air.
“I have had a number of conversations with NRB members who operated under the old ‘Fairness Doctrine’ regime,” he said. “What happens is there is a chilling of free speech because the license-holder tends to take off the air the programmer whose content is deemed to be controversial.”
This weekend’s meeting will offer up ideas about fighting back the prospects of government-controlled speech on the airwaves.
“I don’t want to tip our hands on strategy except to say that if the approach taken by the administration is an FCC approach, we believe we can bring enough pressure to bear on the commission at the point of enactment to bring enough heat to get them to see the light, so to speak,” he said. “I don’t think we can stop it in the House or Senate.”
Just last week another Democratic U.S. senator went on record as supporting the reinstatement of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine,” adding, “I feel like that’s gonna happen.”
|Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.|
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told radio host and WND columnist Bill Press \ when asked about whether it was time to bring back the so-called “Fairness Doctrine”: “I think it’s absolutely time to pass a standard. Now, whether it’s called the Fairness Standard, whether it’s called something else – I absolutely think it’s time to be bringing accountability to the airwaves. I mean, our new president has talked rightly about accountability and transparency. You know, that we all have to step up and be responsible. And, I think in this case, there needs to be some accountability and standards put in place.”
Stabenow’s husband, Tom Athans, was executive vice president of the left-leaning talk radio network Air America. He left the network in 2006, when it filed for bankruptcy, and co-founded the TalkUSA Radio Network.
Asked by Press if she could be counted on to push for hearings in the Senate this year “to bring these (radio station) owners in and hold them accountable,” Stabenow replied: “I have already had some discussions with colleagues and, you know, I feel like that’s gonna happen. Yep.”
Meanwhile, as WND has previously reported, other Democratic legislators have tried to claim talk about a reintroduction of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” is merely conspiracy-mongering by right-wing talk radio and its partisan cheerleaders.
But other Democrats in the Senate and House – and even a few Republicans – have made no secret of their support for such legislation.
“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.”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., 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.
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 bringing it back.
“It should and will affect everyone,” Eshoo pledged.
Meanwhile, President Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, 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.”
But the debate heated up again recently when Obama singled out Rush Limbaugh, the king of talk radio, for criticism: “You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”
As WND reported, the Democratic National Congressional Committee also launched a petition to reprimand Limbaugh directly for his criticism of Obama.
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, 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?”
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. 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.