Liberals, too, should reject the Fairness Doctrine
Do we really want the government to be talk radio's nanny?
Having won control of the White House and Congress, Democrats are turning their attention to their legislative agenda. High on the list of priorities? The Fairness Doctrine. Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York hope to use their party's victory to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine on radio, but the return of the doctrine would be bad news for them – and could end up being good news for conservatives.Skip to next paragraph
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Not familiar with the Fairness Doctrine? It's not your fault – it hasn't been in existence for more than 20 years. Meant to ensure every side received fair hearing on controversial issues, the doctrine was tossed out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the Reagan years.
Many Democrats are eager to bring the doctrine back, and it is likely to be introduced early on in the next Congress. Senator Schumer underscored this point when, on Election Day, he made his case for the doctrine on Fox News, arguing that government has a right to regulate radio for the public good, as it does with pornography.
In conservative media, the doctrine has been getting play throughout the campaign. As Barack Obama's victory looked increasingly likely, David Frum used the Fairness Doctrine to argue for divided government, warning that a Democratic Congress would try to silence the opposition through the Fairness Doctrine. Others contended that Democrats wanted the doctrine to force more stations to air less-popular liberal radio programming.
Perhaps these are the goals. If so, they show how off-base these Democrats are about the history of the Fairness Doctrine, and how out-of-tune they are with the current direction of the Democratic base. Liberals aren't clamoring for a voice on radio – they're staking out territory on the Internet, which they've effectively used not only to air grievances and ideas but to organize political action.
More important, though, the Fairness Doctrine did more to help develop conservative talk radio while in effect than it has in the 20 years since its revocation.
Admittedly, that conclusion isn't obvious. Democrats' decision to advance the Fairness Doctrine makes sense according to conventional explanations of conservative broadcasting's rise. In talk radio lore, the abolishment of the doctrine in 1987 gave rise to Rush Limbaugh and a slew of conservative imitators. That Limbaugh went national in 1988 lends credence to this theory.