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| Guest Columnist | Harry M. Covert | Hayden Duke | Jason Miller | Ken Kellar | Patricia A. Kelly | Edward Lulie III | Cindy A. Rose | Richard B. Weldon Jr. | Brooke Winn |


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July 2, 2007

Is the Fairness Doctrine Really Fair?

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Progressives would have you believe that the airwaves are controlled by rabid, mouth-breathing conservative talk show hosts who force their abusive viewpoints on the poor, unthinking American public.

Conversely, conservative radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh counter that they succeed because listeners prefer their particular brand of political speech, and that frequent attempts by liberal and progressive voices to establish themselves as on-air presences have fallen flat on their posteriors.

Into this particular debate comes the potential to renew the Fairness Doctrine, that bureaucratic enactment meant to protect the burgeoning radio industry in the late 1940's from becoming too heavily weighted in favor of a specific political point-of-view.

The Federal Communications Commission created the regulation in 1949 to afford a reasonable opportunity for "discussion of conflicting political views". At the outset of the radio industry, a few very wealthy families and industrialists were in a position to influence a large segment of the population, and the FCC rightly feared the impact of that level of control.

Subsequently, others points of view and station ownership began to emerge, along with a steady stream of competing venues for public attention. One the more significant developments of the 20th Century was the advent of "public" radio and television, and the creation of National Public Radio.

In a famous case from 1969 (Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC), the Supreme Court held that the fairness doctrine did not violate a broadcasters First Amendment rights. This ruling has been used for years by liberals and progressives to argue that conservatives have no "right" to use public airwaves to present one political point of view.

As is often the case with the progressives, though, they fail to mention a critical point also included in the Red Lion ruling. In fact, the point was so important it was cited in 1984 when the doctrine was questioned by the Supreme Court.

That point, often referred to as the "scarcity" rule, was buried in the language of the Red Lion opinion. The court held that when the number of stations broadcasting political speech had become significant enough to insure access to a variety of opinions, the fairness doctrine might well be considered an abridgment of free speech protections.

In 1984, that threshold was easily breached, and the court held that the fairness doctrine was restricting public debate. The FCC, not one to ignore Supreme Court rulings, overturned the fairness doctrine in 1987. Congress, at that point firmly under Democratic Party control, immediately attempted to legislate the fairness doctrine into law.

Sitting at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, wasn't going to allow his growing network of favorable radio stations across the country to be manipulated by House Speaker Tip O'Neill and the Democratic leadership of the Congress. Mr. Reagan gleefully vetoed the bill, and subsequent attempts to pass the fairness doctrine in Congress have even failed to get a simple majority vote.

So, why now? Why do we need a fairness doctrine in how radio stations operate? The answer: because the progressives are unable to control the message through that media segment, that's why!

Air America, the flagship radio network of the modern American progressive movement, recently went bankrupt. Various attempts to establish a beachhead on the radio for liberals and progressives continue to flounder. Fox News, the concoction of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, continues to consistently lead all news categories for both morning television news/talk (Fox & Friends) and evening prime time news (The O'Reilly Factor/Hannity & Colmes).

While liberals clearly control CNN and MSNBC, they suffer a tragic inability to dislodge the more conservative news shows from the top ratings spots. The same is true when it comes to talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh, in spite of his run-ins with the law over prescription painkillers, maintains his long-held status as talk radio's ratings king. Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck are all so far ahead of the liberal and progressive talk show hosts that the discussion of the others feels forced.

You see, talk radio and television are products, and the listening public is the consumer. Forced competition from one political party or the other will not, of and by itself, create markets that simply do not exist otherwise.

The popularity of traditional and conservative talk radio and TV has more to do with the tastes and preferences of the American people than it does the strength of the argument or the personality of the performers.

Evidence of this is the fact that if it were not for the massive public subsidy of both public television and radio, there would not be a competitive market for those products, and they would disappear.

So, think twice when Howard Dean, Sen. Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tell you that we need to clean up talk radio, and renewing the Fairness Doctrine will do just that.

Not only are they lying to you, they are merely trying to cover their own bankrupt ability to communicate ideas and themes that connect with the American people.

You see, we're not as stupid as they seem to think we are, and we're very comfortable with our own definition of fairness.

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