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Monday, April 11, 2005

What Liberals Mean With Fairness Doctrine: Make It Fair and Complete Or We Will

Democracy Project picked up on the upcoming conclave of liberals devoted to restoring the FCC's so-called Fairness Doctrine and adds important additional information, including some quotes from the Pew Center that illustrate how little those folks understand about the Blogosphere and excerpts from a disturbing interview by Bill Moyers of Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, one of the chief Fairness Doctrine advocates in Congress.

You will also find additional evidence of the strength and resources behind the liberal push to bring back the Fairness Doctrine in the following article, which I wrote earlier this year for the National Religious Broadcasters' national convention program:

Can you hear it?
Boom. Boom. Boom.
There it is again … louder.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
What is it, you ask?

It’s the liberal drumbeat for bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, so they can silence people with different views. People like you and me. It’s time we wake up and see the writing on the wall.

Lest you think me a Chicken Little, let’s look back on the last year and see what influential liberals in the communications industry have been saying, starting with the University of Michigan’s Susan Douglas, professor of communications and author of “Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media.”

Like legions of her fellow liberals, the day after President Bush’s re-election campaign victory found Douglas, in her own words, “barely functional,” “sickened” and in a “deep depression.” Barely a month later, though, Douglas regained her fighting form, shouting defiance with a disturbing piece in the far left In These Times proclaiming “this is our country, it is not a revival tent. We must continue to fight to save it.”

Guess what’s one of the key planks in the Douglas platform for saving America? Recognizing “how important media reform is, particularly the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, which the Reagan administration abolished in 1987. We see the results of too much Rush and O’Reilly without any balance: voters who don’t have the facts.”

If they can silence Rush Limbaugh, the most popular radio personality in America, how much easier will it be to silence religious broadcasters who collectively represent a much bigger audience, but who singly present irresistible targets by virtue of their often-modest legal resources?

Douglas is far from a lonesome voice on the Left in calling for the return of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory policy that was so enthusiastically used by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the early 1960s to silence Christian broadcasters and others whose political views failed the liberal litmus test of the day. You can read the history of that oppressive era in former CBS News president Fred Friendly’s landmark 1975 book, “The Good Guys, the Bad Guys and the First Amendment: Free Speech vs. Fairness in Broadcasting.”

Others on the Left have not been quite so blatant as Douglas in calling for a return of the Fairness Doctrine. Usually they couch the demand behind the cloak of other issues like diversity and media concentration, thus calling for the return in everything but the actual name. Consider these recent speeches by FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps.

Copps, a former Clinton administration appointee and long-time chief of staff for Sen. Ernest Hollingsworth, wrote in dissenting from the FCC’s controversial media concentration regulations: “The Commission has allowed fundamental protections of the public interest to wither and die, requirements like ascertaining the needs of the local audience, the Fairness Doctrine, teeing up controversial issues, providing demonstrated diversity in programming, ensuring decent quality programming for our children, to name a few of the safeguards we had once but have abandoned.”

In a March 2004 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Copps called on industry to voluntarily write a “tough new code” of programming standards like those of old that “affirmed broadcaster responsibilities toward children, community issues and public affairs.” As Friendly notes in his book, community issues and public affairs were precisely those the FCC cited in shutting down Christian broadcasters. This voluntary code would almost certain be an interim step to clear the way for the return of the government regulation.

Similarly, speaking in Las Vegas last year during the “Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition” press conference, Commissioner Adelstein, noted that “the FCC’s specific public interest obligations have been so weakened that broadcasters have very little they are required to demonstrate. We are entering the digital age of broadcasting and it’s time to restore these public interest obligations.”

Among the purposes of that restoration would be, according to Adelstein, expanding “the diversity of viewpoints and voices available to a community over its airwaves” and “fostering a diversity of perspectives through independent production.”

By the way, before his FCC appointment, Adelstein worked for many years for former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). Is it too far-fetched then to wonder if what Adelstein has in mind is some sort of mandated “public interest programming” produced by independent producers such as … Michael Moore?

The past year also saw back-door efforts by liberals in Congress to bring the Fairness Doctrine back from the grave. Fortunately, a bill doing just that introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) went nowhere, thanks to conservatives who properly saw it as an attempt to muzzle conservative and religious Talk Radio.

Over in the Senate, Tom Harkin (D-IA) took a more subtle approach, attaching an obscure amendment to the massive Department of Defense budget authorization bill. Harkin’s amendment would have required a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.

Thanks to the eagle eye of folks like the National Religious Broadcasters legislative staff, the Harkin mischief was stopped but not before it got all the way to a Senate-House conference committee. No wonder the NRB magazine recently observed that “some Members of Congress and pundits will most likely begin calling for re-instatement of this collectivist tool in the wake of a brutal election season” in the 109th Congress that just convened in January.

What if the liberals somehow succeed in restoring the Fairness Doctrine? The presidential campaign produced a vivid answer to that question when Sinclair Broadcasting, an independent Baltimore-based firm with 62 stations disclosed plans to air a documentary that was highly critical of Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam war record.

Up stepped Kerry aide Chad Clanton, a political operative and campaign talking head with a chilling message for journalists, publishers and broadcasters everywhere - “they better hope we don’t win.” Speaking to a national television audience on Fox News, Clanton clearly was threatening to use the coercive powers of the federal government, including especially the FCC, to punish Sinclair if it went ahead with its planned broadcast.

One need not agree with the political views of Sinclair’s owners or the critique of Kerry voiced in the “Stolen Honor” documentary that sparked Clanton’s threat in order to recognize his thuggish remark for the danger it posed to the First Amendment. Kerry has never repudiated Clanton.

It would be foolish, however, not to assume that what too many liberals mean when they talk about a new or restored Fairness Doctrine is using the FCC and other federal agencies to bludgeon into silence or otherwise control non-politically correct voices. And religious broadcasters are about as un-PC as you can get.

What should we expect in the months ahead? Spend some time on the web sites of liberal groups like Democracy Radio, Media Matters for America and the Media Access Project. These groups are jointly and aggressively pushing an internet-based petition drive to force restoration of the Fairness Doctrine or its modern equivalent.

The boards and advisors of these three groups represent a virtual who’s who of influential liberals from the worlds of media, public affairs, political activism and non-profit philanthropy. They are united in a well-funded drive to bring back the bad old days when Washington decided who could say what on America’s public airwaves.

They have numerous allies in the Mainstream Media, which is losing audience and influence as a result of new media like Talk Radio, Christian broadcasters and the Internet’s Blogosphere. Those of all points on the political and spiritual spectrum who love the First Amendment, the right of unfettered religious expression and an independent, free press had better take notice before its too late.