Political Radio May Soon See Censorship

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Whether its Rush Limbaugh on the right or Al Franken on the left, Americans are accustomed to differing viewpoints on the public airwaves.

But how that's achieved could radically change iff Democrats bring back the "Fairness Doctrine" to broadcasting.

"The problem with the fairness doctrine is the government is the one dictating what is quote unquote is 'fair.' And the problem with that is, it ends up becoming a very bureaucratic process to regulate speech and speech output according to who's in power," said Adam Thierer of the conservative Progress and Freedom Foundation.

The 1949 policy by the Federal Communications Commission once required licensed radio and television stations to give equal time to opposing political views.

It's a matter of fairness, say supporters like Bill Press, liberal commentator and host of the "Bill Press Radio Show."

"Remember, these are public licenses. There are very few of them that these people get. They're great privileges to have these licenses," he said. "There should be, I think, some conditions attached to those licenses."

Conservative critics have called the doctrine a liberal plot to "hush rush," a move to silence political opponents.

Thierer says consumers, not the government, should choose what they want to hear in the free market of ideas.

"There's no doubt that part of what's going on here is an effort by some specifically on the left and in Democratic party to counter what they feel is an overwhelming conservative viewpoint in talk radio today. But the fact is, the numbers don't lie," he said. "People listen to these shows. People like these shows, and, of course, there are some liberal voices and liberal outlets, including things like Air America, although they're not doing so well."

It was after the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 that conservative talk radio exploded on the scene, allowing hosts to voice opinions without their stations having to give equal time to conflicting points of view.

President Reagan that year vetoed a bill to make the doctrine law after courts ruled it had a chilling effect on free speech.

"That's because people in the broadcast community didn't want to run afoul of federal regulations. After all they could lose their license to broadcast, the death penalty for a broadcaster," Thierer explained.

Liberals say the doctrine's repeal was a political response to conservative perceptions of liberal media bias.

"It was overruled by a Reagan dominated FCC because they had this idea that all the media is against them. The liberal media is against them so they were going to attack, the frontal attack on the media, so they repealed the Fairness Doctrine," Press said.

Today, advocates for the Fairness Doctrine are calling for a comeback to balance a media they say is dominated by an "overwhelmingly right-wing view."

"If there ever was a liberal media, there's not today. Today conservatives rule the media. Conservatives rule the Congress," Press said.  "Conservatives rule talk radio. Conservatives have their own powerful television network, the only one, the most powerful in the country, the most watched. Liberals have none. Conservatives rule the op-ed pages of all the newspapers."

Conservatives say they have just a sliver of the market and that it's liberal views that fill up major newspapers, news networks, public radio and TV.

Press says no way.

"They're total cry babies," he said. "I worked at CNN. It's not a liberal network. I was never on the CNN unless I had a conservative sitting alongside beside me. I was never on MSNBC unless I had Pat Buchanan sitting alongside of me. You know I watch, ABC, NBC, CBS, it's one half hour of news and it's right straight down the middle."

Press says when Republicans are out of power, they'll come begging for the Fairness Doctrine to get their views across.

Conservatives warn of good intentions gone wrong, saying the doctrine would mean bureaucratic nightmares for broadcasters and less choice for consumers.

"Broadcasters in the old days avoided airing controversial subjects because they thought if they did, they'd have to somehow provide equal time to every potential opposing viewpoint aired on their radio or TV stations," Theirer explained. "So they decided to take a more bland approach to the fare they put on airwaves, and that led to less controversial opinions and less dissent on airwaves."

The outcome of this election could spark a new round of debate over the possible renewal of the fairness doctrine and over the issue of who decides what's fair. Whether that's a question best left to federal bureaucrats - or to the media, the marketplace of ideas, and the public.

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Melissa Charbonneau

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