These are scary times for far-right conservatives. Everywhere they look, there's another doomsday scenario to ponder: President-elect Barack Obama is a closet Communist! Another Hitler! A race warrior who's going to ban guns, kill newborn babies, and just might be the Antichrist!
Most of these dark anxieties simmer on the right's outermost fringes. But one — the conviction that Obama's win and Democratic gains in Congress mean the impending resurrection of Fairness Doctrine, a defunct policy aimed at creating a balance in broadcasting — is tormenting both the wing nuts and conservatism's grownups.
Consider: Jay Severin, a host on Boston's WTKK-FM (96.9), recently accused Fairness Doctrine supporters of "standing by watching while fascists come to my house, burn it down, and kill my family." Yikes. Meanwhile, back in September, Washington Post columnist George Will warned that "Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood, and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio" — by resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine, natch.
Why all the fuss? For one thing, despite all the hyperbole, talk of a Fairness Doctrine comeback isn't as loony as it seems, judging from recent remarks by some prominent Dems. But there may be another reason. Outrage over the Fairness Doctrine is becoming a pawn in the fight over Net Neutrality, the principle of all Web content moving freely and equally without discrimination from ISPs — which, given the stakes, should make Democrats drop the former subject altogether.
An outdated solution
For most of the second half of the 20th century, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asserted that the right to broadcast — on scarce, publicly owned frequencies — came with civic responsibility. Broadcasters, the FCC held, should devote some of their programming to controversial matters of public interest. They should also allow divergent points of view to be presented on their stations. That's the Fairness Doctrine in a nutshell. (In one famous case, the Supreme Court ruled that the author of a critical biography of Barry Goldwater had the right to respond to a torrent of criticism directed at him from a Christian broadcaster in Red Lion, Pennsylvania.)
The doctrine's intentions were commendable. But it was vague, and spottily applied, and co-existed uneasily with the First Amendment's right to free speech. And in 1987 — at the height of Reagan-era deregulation — it was voluntarily abolished by the FCC. The FCC's decision was upheld on appeal to the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1989, and subsequent congressional efforts to restore it have failed.
Many observers believe that's for the best. "The Fairness Doctrine had this perverse result," says Jane Kirtley, director of the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. "The way some broadcasters chose to provide equal time for opposing viewpoints to be heard was to say that they just weren't going to cover controversial issues. I have no reason to think that would change in 2008 or 2009." Factor in the rise of cable news and the Web, adds Kirtley, and the Fairness Doctrine's original rationale doesn't make sense anymore.
Media critic Rory O'Connor, who discusses the subject in Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio (AlterNet), agrees. "The Fairness Doctrine is a 20th-century response to 21st-century problems," he says. "It didn't work so well in the first place. It was misused and abused by political operatives in both parties." There is, O'Connor claims, "no way in Hell" that the Fairness Doctrine's going to be reinstated. Conservatives are only milking the subject to "excite the base, create outrage, and drive up ratings."
No question, the right's treatment of the subject is irresponsible. A restored Fairness Doctrine wouldn't "kill" the conservative-friendly medium of talk radio, or mandate "equal time" for the presentation of liberal and conservative perspectives. Instead, it would simply require conservative broadcast outlets to allow the occasional liberal voice, and vice versa.
To be fair, though, conservative fears aren't entirely unfounded. While Obama seems to favor regulating broadcasters to achieve specific aims, including increased minority ownership, he's indicated he doesn't want to restore the Fairness Doctrine. But other prominent Democrats disagree. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently told the conservative magazine Human Events that she supports the Fairness Doctrine. On Election Day, Democratic New York senator Chuck Schumer told Fox News you couldn't oppose the Fairness Doctrine while supporting government regulation of obscenity, as many conservatives do. And other Dems — including Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the subject of an attack documentary broadcast on Sinclair Broadcasting's 62 (conservative) stations during his 2004 presidential run — have made similar remarks.
Time for restraint
That some Democrats might relish the idea of punishing Limbaugh and his compadres is understandable. But there are strong arguments for restraint. The first is constitutional: the Fairness Doctrine would exist, yet again, in tension with the First Amendment. The second is strategic: the inchoate sense of grievance that currently animates the right has slim political potential — but that could change if Republicans can style themselves as free-speech defenders.