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Craig Aaron

Craig Aaron

Posted February 13, 2009 | 01:11 PM (EST)

The Fairness Doctrine: Just Say No


Alert the Centers for Disease Control: The latest panic over the Fairness Doctrine is becoming a full-blown epidemic.

The hysteria is no longer limited to right-wing radio and the Republican Caucus. Some prominent Democrats are catching it, too.

The Fairness Doctrine is the long defunct federal rule that required broadcasters to present contrasting views on controversial issues. Off the books since 1987, its demise is often (and erroneously) credited with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the noise machine.

As I've written here repeatedly, there is no chance the Fairness Doctrine will come back. There's no bill to reinstate it in Congress, no public interest advocates are campaigning for it, and the netroots aren't interested. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps doesn't want it back, and President Barack Obama is unequivocally opposed.

That's why the symptoms of Fairness Doctrine Panic, or FDP, are so scary. Once afflicted, otherwise clear-headed politicians start rambling uncontrollably and putting their feet in their mouths. And FDP (first diagnosed by journalist Matthew Lasar) is highly contagious: When one person starts talking about the Fairness Doctrine, others can't help themselves.

That's the only logical explanation for the recent statements on The Bill Press Show by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) about restoring the Fairness Doctrine. Now even Bill Clinton seems to have come down with a case of FDP.

Of course, neither of these senators is in a position to actually bring back the Fairness Doctrine, unless the agriculture or banking committees are about to suddenly expand their jurisdictions. And it would seem the current Democratic president's views on the subject are more important than the last one's. But these factors won't keep the Fairness Doctrine from being topic No. 1 on talk radio and Fox News.

Stabenow, Harkin and Clinton must think paying lip service to the Fairness Doctrine keeps their base -- or at least Bill Press -- happy. But it's really just red meat for the other side, giving conservative talkers and bloggers something to rant about, raise money against, and rally their troops

Perhaps I'm missing a more subtle and sophisticated strategy in which these politicians are summoning the ghost of the Fairness Doctrine to keep Republicans so apoplectic that they won't have the energy to obstruct more important issues. I wish the Democrats were so clever.

More likely is that all this idle chatter will make it much harder to implement much-needed media reforms. Feeding the FDP encourages Republicans to attack any sensible media policy as the Fairness Doctrine in disguise.

Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell is already slamming crucial issues like Net Neutrality as the "Fairness Doctrine" for the Internet. This is ridiculous -- Net Neutrality by its very definition is content neutral -- but that doesn't mean the fear-mongering won't work.

Our leaders in Washington could instead be working to protect free speech and promote more voices in the public sphere. Congress could be moving legislation right now -- with broad popular and bipartisan support -- to rein in runaway media consolidation (the biggest obstacle to diversity of opinion on the airwaves), to increase public media funding and protect it from political interference, and to make sure the free and open Internet stays that way. Or they can keep blabbering about a backward-looking, politically doomed policy that never really worked and has been dead and gone for 20 years.

Fortunately, there is a remarkably effective and surprisingly simple treatment for FDP.

It's easy: When asked about the Fairness Doctrine, just say no. Call it the "not talking cure."

Let's do a little role-playing. Pretend I'm Bill Press:

BILL PRESS: Isn't it time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine?

DEMOCRATIC POLITICIAN: No.

BILL PRESS: Don't we need it? But isn't this the only way to keep progressive voices on the air?

DEMOCRATIC POLITICIAN: No.

BILL PRESS: Is the Fairness Doctrine ever coming back?

DEMOCRATIC POLITICIAN: No. Nope. Not. Nyet. Never.

Wasn't that easy? The beauty is that it also works with conservative hosts. And it has the added benefit of being true.

Just say no to the Fairness Doctrine. You'll be feeling better in no time.