Writing over at Politico, Michael Calderone reports on Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the fairness doctrine. From the get-go I can smell the bias in the Politico piece – though it is in the blog section and not pure news – when Calderone describes that radio host Bill Press and the Michigan Senator met “and talked about whether there needs to be a balance to right-wing talk on the radio dial.” As soon as you see one of those catch phrases, in this case “right-wing”, you know that the writer already has an opinion on the subject. But it is in a blog section so he can let his opinion out, as I am about to do.
Why do they want the Fairness Doctrine?
Sen. Stabenow, who the post points out in a later update is married to a “liberal talk radio executive”, expressed interest in bringing back the so-called Fairness Doctrine. To be fair, if her husband is employed by “liberal talk radio” she already has a potential conflict of interest and her support could be related to her own financial self interest. But it is also fair to say that in general people on the left are more supportive of the Fairness Doctrine than those on the right. So why is that? Why do people on the left, and more specifically politicians on the left, like the idea of the fairness doctrine?
Let’s look at this from the outside for a moment. Remember that we are talking about free choice and dissemination of information, so we need to approach this from the American perspective of erroring on the side of free speech. Normally liberals will bend over backwards to perpetuate the feel-good myth that they are the guardians of free speech, so as is usually the case they have to manufacture a boogeyman to provide some cover for themselves. At least for once it is not about “the children”! There is this idea that all of the talk-radio-capable radio stations are owned by conservatives and that they are using this virtual monopoly to prevent marketable liberal radio shows from emerging. This is a real stretch. You have to picture some smoke-filled rooms full of bespectacled chunky Republican businessmen, men who ordinarily are so allegedly greedy in the eyes of the Left that they would do anything for a buck, but in this case they forgo profitable business opportunities to avoid providing a platform for liberal ideas. Does anyone outside of Daily Kos believe this? I do not know why conservatives flock to talk radio more than liberals do, but many examples have proven that liberal talk radio does not have the broad appeal and high number of listeners as does conservative talk tadio.
Like anyone my age I was right there when this talk radio thing exploded. Being an evolving liberatarian-conservative 20-something in the early 90s I was not a fan of President Clinton and I listened to the voices of opposition in the form of an early Rush Limbaugh and a pre-syndication Neal Boortz, back in the days when Sean Hannity was a local minor-leaguer up against Boortz’ time slot. Remember that this was before FoxNews and before the internet was ready for Prime Time (the old Usenet days) – all we had for news were [liberal] newspapers, the [liberal] Big Three networks, and [liberal] CNN. Conservative talk radio sprang up because of two things. First was the fact that we had what many perceived as a young hippie couple coming into the White House and suddenly we found that we had real intellectual and philosophical soul mates out there in “flyover country”. Not just the hosts but the scores of [sometimes] intelligent callers who enunciated things that we felt, things that you never saw on the Big Three networks. Conservative ideas had long been squelched in the media and suddenly (for me it was in the very early 90s) there were people out there calling out the liberals for once. It was refreshing and wonderfully and beautifully American. This was a voice that had previously been filtered out by the powers that be in media but now we heard it and we were empowered by it – the Newt Gingrich revolution that forced Clinton to govern as a centrist could never have happened without talk radio. The second, and more long-term reason for its success is the simple fact that because of the fact that there are so many people out there interested in conservative philosophy and discussion, there is huge money to be made. The shows followed the dollars.
Why didn’t huge left-wing radio hosts spring up in the Bush years like in the Clinton years?
So then the Clinton days came to an end and a Republican took office. With all of the indignant outrage from the left after the disputed election in 2000 and the subsequent development of what Charles Krauthammer dubbed Bush Derangement Syndrome, I expected to see the emergence of a liberal version of Rush Limbaugh. After all, if the conservative talk radio phenomenon sprang up largely as a voice for the opposition then it would be reasonable to see a successful national liberal talk show spring up in opposition to Bush. It was even more to be expected since the hard-left often seemed to believe that Bush was actually evil whereas many conservatives in the 90s just despised Bill Clinton as a liberal disingenuous hillbilly rather than the devil incarnate. But there was no such emergence and the only reason can be that it is simply financially unfeasible. Some have argued the simple position that liberals do not have the same level of disposable income and therefore are not a rich enough target for advertisers. I also argue that liberal ideas do not stand up well to public scrutiny and it is just too hard to keep non-liberals from calling into those shows.
How would they implement their “fairness”?
There are a lot of opinions as to what an implementation of the Fairness Doctrine might look like. Anyone who exposes themselves to any news or opinion on talk radio has certainly heard it discussed. Most discussions by conservatives portray it very negatively and it is hard for me to see any good coming out of it. The “worst case scenario” envisioned by those most threatened by it would include requirements that someone like Limbaugh or Hannity or Boortz or Hewitt have a vocal liberal sitting next to them, getting equal air time. Some only slightly less odious versions would require equal amounts of time to both sides, so perhaps they could put the liberal shows from midnight to 6am or something. Again, it is terrifically important to remember that we have this thing called the first amendment and that it is a Genuine Right (as opposed to a welfare “right”, a subject I intend to blog about soon) in that its exercise requires only that government stay out of the way. So in this discussion of the Fairness Doctrine we have to ask ourselves what enormously compelling special case requires that we ignore the first amendment in this case and let the government dictate content of speech. The only reason that an independent observer could logically deduce is that it is about silencing the opposition.
For those readers who support the Fairness Doctrine, remember that turnabout is fair play and that we could easily apply it back to the networks, though their relevance is fading. Saint Barack Obama could never have been elected if the networks were forced to show “all sides” of the debate. Also remember, as you try to silence ideas that you dislike, how many times you lectured everyone about dissent being the highest form of patriotism.
I am not sure if the Fairness Doctrine is going to come back, Obama will play a big role in that, and if it does no one really knows what it will mean when the rubber hits the road. But in the end, the opposition-silencing “Fairness Doctrine” sounds perfectly Orwellian and smells distinctly un-American.