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A false alarm on a new 'Fairness Doctrine'

ON THE MEDIA

November 14, 2008|JAMES RAINEY | Rainey is a Times staff writer.

One of the favorite rallying cries on conservative radio these days is that the president-elect might face demands from his crazed lefty pals to revive the "Fairness Doctrine" to muzzle Rush, Sean and their allies on the right end of the radio dial.

Commentators like Larry Elder of KABC here in Los Angeles have been sounding the warning about the possible imminent return of federal rules mandating that broadcasters balance out political views on radio and television.

Newt Gingrich asserted not long ago that the Democrats certainly would mount "an effort to eliminate freedom of speech for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity." Limbaugh responded, "It's going to be more than just me and Hannity whose freedom of speech will be done away with via the Fairness Doctrine."

Indeed, it would be a shame if Congress or a Barack Obama-controlled Federal Communications Commission wasted time resurrecting the rules, which were abolished in 1987. President Reagan and his FCC decided there were enough alternative outlets for a range of opinion.

Two decades later -- in an age when a host of political views spark and burn across cable television and the Internet -- a reimposition of the rules would seem quaintly anachronistic.

I think Rush and the boys have it right on this one: The free market offers plenty of room for liberals to have their say, even in an era when the vast multitude of radio stations are owned by a few conglomerates.

The radio right, though, has it wrong in predicting a free-speech apocalypse on the near horizon. They insist Democrats in Congress or on a newly constituted FCC will reimpose the Fairness Doctrine.

That would force radio owners, the story goes, to air hopelessly dull liberal programs to balance out fascinating conservative commentary.

Faced with these onerous requirements, radio owners would cut air time for conservatives or jettison political talk altogether rather than be saddled with money-losing liberals.

It's a nice plot line, and lots of people seem to be expending tremendous energy fretting about it. But let's just say that the imminent reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine is, as Archie Bunker liked to say, a pigment of their imagination.

Yes, a few Democratic lawmakers have recently talked about supporting such regulation, rules they say could be justified to protect a scarce public resource -- the public airwaves.

In October, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told a conservative Albuquerque talker that he supported the Fairness Doctrine. "I would want this station and all stations to have to present a balanced perspective and different points of view," Bingaman said, "instead of always hammering away at one side of the political [spectrum]."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is another lawmaker who has expressed an interest in bringing back the rules. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) has considered reintroducing a media ownership reform law, to try to expand and diversify control of radio and television outlets. But it's unclear whether that measure would include a Fairness Doctrine, as an earlier Hinchey proposal did.

Conservatives cite those comments in justifying their fears. But they also make a determined effort to ignore the politics of the moment.

Democrats like Bingaman have made it clear they do not view the Fairness Doctrine as politically feasible. They have cited numerous more urgent priorities for Democrats to address. And they have said they have no intention of forcing the issue.

As on many other issues, they want the new Obama administration to take the lead. And the president-elect, as a candidate last summer, said unequivocally that he did not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine.

"He considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communication to as many diverse viewpoints as possible," said spokesman Michael Ortiz.

Several right-wing bloggers interpret that as mere Obama code and baldly assert that the Democrats will surely bring back the fairness rules to thwart their enemies on talk radio.

If the left wing is gearing up for such a push, I had trouble detecting it. A search of the liberal Daily Kos website turned up almost no mentions of the Fairness Doctrine. And the site's founder, Markos Moulitsas, said by e-mail Thursday that he sensed "zero impetus" to make the change.

"The right is using it as a straw man to build hysteria and opposition to the incoming Democratic administration and Congress," Moulitsas opined. "But there are zero serious efforts to make it happen."

Yes, conservatives dominate talk radio -- by one count controlling three-quarters of the programming. That might seem inherently unfair.

But liberals have found numerous outlets in other media, including websites like Daily Kos and Huffington Post, daytime programs like ABC's "The View," and nighttime cable shows like those hosted by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.

What sense would it make to impose a government program to monitor all that broadcast blather, hour by hour? Wouldn't that provoke a constitutional challenge?

Yes, the 8th Amendment still prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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