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March 3, 2009

There Is No Fairness Doctrine

Ever since Barack Obama was elected president, one issue has been a consistent topic on right-wing talk radio, just as much as the stimulus or the bailouts or the other issues the imminent return of the Fairness Doctrine.

Now that the Democrats are in charge, the story went, they're going to finally put back into practice the rule that until the 1980s mandated equal time on the radio to differing political points of view, especially in the conservative-dominated medium of talk radio. This move, as argued both on the shows themselves and in public service announcements recorded by the likes of Edwin Meese, would be a way to put much of conservative talk radio out of business, in order to suppress dissent in the age of Obama.

This argument, though, has run into reality: The return of the Fairness Doctrine isn't going to happen. Not this year, not next year, and probably not ever. It wasn't ever really much a realistic possibility in the first place.

President Obama made it official last week, as the president's spokesman announced unequivocally that the administration opposes any move to bring back the Doctrine. Indeed, Obama had never expressed even an iota of support for the idea at any point during the campaign or after.

And while a handful of members of Congress as well as former President Clinton had made noises about pushing for its return in recent weeks, it never earned either a large amount of support or a high spot on the list of Democratic legislative priorities. There was never much grassroots liberal support for the idea, and the opposition of Obama, who has considerably more important priorities these days, seems to seal it. As does an act of Congress: Last Thursday, the Senate voted, 87-11, to bar the Doctrine's reimposition, as part of an amendment to the bill to add a voting delegate for Washington, D.C.

As pointed out last year in Rory O'Connor's book Shock Jocks, the return of the Doctrine was always more a matter of Republican scaremongering than anything with any possibility of ever happening. There was never enough political will to do so, with thousands of talk shows it would be almost completely unenforceable, and when the Doctrine was in effect the first time, the FCC never once ruled on a case involving political talk shows.

Leaving all that aside, should the Doctrine come back? I wouldn't recommend it. There are significant First Amendment issues involved, of course, plus it's not practical and I don't believe the government should be in the radio programming business. Obama's FCC chairman-designate, Julius Genachowski, hasn't even been confirmed yet. When he is, I expect other issues, most notably the digital television transition and issues of media ownership consolidation, will be much more worthy of his time.

I can't think of any issue that has drawn so much attention, relative to its actual chance of happening, as the alleged plan to re-enact the Fairness Doctrine. Call it the left-wing version of one of those right-wing phantom issues like the flag-burning amendment, or crackdowns on violent video games much as it gets talked about from time to time, it's never actually happened, and probably never will.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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