The Public Has a Right to Make 'You're on the Air' Fair Again

THE national debate over bully-boy radio in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing has missed the point: It's time to revive the ''fairness doctrine.''

The law holds that broadcast frequencies are a public resource and that licensees must serve the interests of the public -- all the public. But in 1987, major lobbying organs of the broadcasting industry, conservative congressmen, and ideological front groups such as Sen. Bob Packwood's National Campaign for Freedom of Expression abolished the fairness standard.

Promulgated by the FCC in 1949, it declared that stations had an obligation to ''afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.'' The public had a need to be fully informed. Owners had no right to monopolize their stations with their own, or anybody else's, point of view.

The intent of the fairness doctrine was to expose a democratic audience to a reasonable range of viewpoints -- not necessarily in equal doses or on the very same program. Nor was the public's access to the air to be solely dependent on the ability to pay.

President Reagan's first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Fowler, led the campaign inside government to eliminate the fairness doctrine, declaring: ''We've got to get away from this public trusteeship notion that has confused us for so many years.''

He and his allies argued that the doctrine had a chilling effect, in that the regulation actually discouraged stations from airing controversy. They were right, of course. But only in the sense that healthy discourse on the air through discussion and debate, documentaries, and editorials did not produce the high ratings they wanted. What was chilled was the essential aim of the industry -- to deliver the most ''ears and eyeballs'' to sponsors.

The promotion of ''fairness'' also troubled some station operators, religious broadcasters, and advertisers who tended to equate controversy with conspiracy when the issues were raised by those to the left of them.

In the 1960s and '70s, citizens and activist groups increasingly resorted to the fairness doctrine to claim reply-time on matters such as Vietnam policy, political coverage, exclusionary practices by religious stations, and paid special-interest advertising on smoking and nuclear power.

Voting to abolish the fairness doctrine in 1987, the Reagan-dominated FCC covered its action with slippery logic. In promoting discourse, they argued, the doctrine actually contravened freedom of speech and no longer served the public interest.

As a result, the door has been virtually slammed on popular discussion programs on radio and television stations. They no longer editorialize. And radio is now clogged with ideologically oriented talk-show hosts. Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the bible of the trade, Talker's Magazine, estimates 70 percent of talk jocks are to the right of center.

Advertising Age, the leading trade journal, reports that broadcast operators justify the ideological tilt as good for business. The turmoil generated by conservative talkers attracts far more advertisers and audiences than liberal hosts do.

In the new electronic universe, power flows less from the tip of the pen than from the flip of the lip. In the past five years, the number of stations with talk-radio formats has tripled. Nearly a thousand of the nation's 10,000 radio stations are wedded to the talk format. According to Electronic Media, 1 of every 7 dollars earned by radio in 1993 came from talk radio.

Most gab hosts are white, male, and angry. They make much smoke, but little light. Like the most carried of the lot, Rush Limbaugh and convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy, they tend to take cover behind the mike, inflaming rather than informing, excluding and overwhelming rather than engaging. Most stations feel no compunction to balance them with either liberal alternatives or neutral hosts who facilitate as their guests take sides.

Don't underestimate focused gab-power. It has mobilized loyalist listeners into phone lobbies to stifle presidential wannabes and policies, generated runs on Wall Street, and quashed efforts at campaign reform and gun control. Mr. Limbaugh launched a phone blizzard to choke off a congressional attempt to recodify the fairness doctrine. He called it a plot to ''hush Rush.''

Freshmen GOP congressmen honored Limbaugh and his colleagues for shaping the Republican victory in the 1994 elections. In January, House Speaker Newt Gingrich rewarded them with makeshift studios in the Capitol basement, where they enshrined the Contract With America while lambasting the president's State of the Union address.

Tele-mobocracy has aired instant hearsay, factoids, and distortions impossible for a listener to question or a researcher to correct. ''Nobody,'' Limbaugh has declared on his show, ''ever said talk radio is about democracy.''

The death of fairness has stifled diversity. A multiplicity of voices on talk radio fails to guarantee a multiplicity of views. Redress lies not in censorship or the gag, but in the re-activation of the fairness doctrine, the implementation of the public interest standard, and an FCC with the will to strip away licenses for noncompliance.

President Clinton has a direct stake in the battle. The power of the broadcast lobby notwithstanding, those who aspire to the next Congress ought to promise nothing less than the return of democracy to the air.

Scholar-novelist Umberto Eco notes that ''a nation belongs to the persons who control its communications.'' In this nation, that ought to mean the people.

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