Congress is finally looking at the Fairness Doctrine. And of course, nothing sends conservative talk jocks and corporate broadcasters fleeing to the barricades faster than even the slightest hint, rumor and whisper that President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats might aggressively push to reinstate the Doctrine. The jocks rushed to the barricades when top White House advisor David Axelrod recently coyly hinted that new FCC head Julius Genachowski might take a look at the Doctrine that set off even more panic that a return of the Fairness Doctrine was practically a done deal.
That's hardly the case. In June 2008, then Presidential candidate Obama flatly said that he did not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters. And other than the stray remark from Axelrod there's no indication that Obama has changed his mind on the issue. However, he should. The Fairness Doctrine though vague, loose, and virtually unenforced during the decades it was on the books did at least give some pubic space on the airwaves to an occasional dissenting voice. The thought of that is too much to stomach for the anti- fairness Doctrine fear mongers.
Their stock retort is that the Fairness Doctrine obliterates free speech, will lead to a government takeover of the airwaves, drive corporate broadcasters into the tank, and effectively muzzle conservative views. Conservative talk jocks and the media syndicates used the same arguments to prod Reagan and Congress to dump the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. None of this was true then or true now.
The Fairness Doctrine did not require that broadcasters give equal time to liberal or moderate Democrats to counter the hot air of conservative talk jocks. The Doctrine did not tell broadcasters who should get a talk show, what the hosts could say, or who they had to have on their shows. By the time Congress shelved the Doctrine, the FCC had virtually ceased even enforcing it. The Fairness Doctrine simply served as a broad guide to insure that stations give at least some time to differing points of view, i.e. views other than those of conservative white guys, and an occasional token conservative woman or black.
If enough listeners complained that a station was too lop sided in the parade of conservatives it had popping off on a particular issue, than it had to give "reasonable opportunity" to the other side to give an opposing view. The FCC didn't tell the station how much time to give, who to give the time to, or when to give it. The tepid requirement that an offending station bring some semblance of balance to a discussion of an issue did not drive a single conservative jock from the studio mics, diminish the power and profit of the syndicates, or chill free speech. It did just the opposite. The number of conservative talk radio hosts grew bigger, their influence greater, and the profits of corporate syndicates soared. In 1999, the five largest companies operated one out of five stations and generated nearly 50 percent of industry revenue. In 2006, they controlled more than one out of three stations and took in more than sixty percent of industry revenue.
The few successful challenges to a station that hogged the air with conservative talk resulted in more not less free speech, since listeners got to hear a few differing views. No more. In the two decades since the burial of the Doctrine more than a quarter of all broadcast stations don't offer any local news or public affairs programming. An even greater number of stations simply plop in a few minutes of canned news headlines.
Conservative talk radio has been a treasure chest of riches for the broadcast syndicates, and their talk jocks weld a power over millions that emperors, kings and dictators would drool over. A near textbook example of that is the ongoing debate over Obama's stimulus plan. There was some hint in the early days of the congressional debate over the plan that a few House Republicans might be willing to back the plan. The conservative talking heads went to work and quickly changed that. They railed against it as a fatally flawed pork barrel laden, tax and spend, power grab scheme by Obama and the Democrats. This stiffened the spines of the GOP rank and file against the plan. Now that they have flexed their broadcast muscles and whipped the GOP back in line, next up will be to browbeat, cajole, and bully any GOP dissenters on health care, the environment, and any other big ticket issue that conservative talk jocks deem an Obama and Democratic party power grab.
All this of course with not a peep of an alternative view to be heard on their talk airwaves. Obama should bring back the Fairness Doctrine and help make sure that lone voice is heard.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).