Hey, relax everybody! The Fairness Doctrine won't be coming back. And if you think it will be returning then you are just some paranoid conspiracy nut. Such was the assurance of Huffington Post blogger Craig Aaron on January 8:
...the danger of the Fairness Doctrine coming back is completely imaginary.
Yet somehow that hasn't stopped 124 Republicans from pushing a preposterous piece of legislation -- as one of their first acts of the new Congress -- that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that has been dead for 20 years.
The Fairness Doctrine was a longstanding, though seldom enforced, regulation that required broadcasters using the public airwaves to present contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues. It was abandoned in 1987, a move many credit for the rise of right-wing radio. Pretty much ever since, Republicans have been ominously warning of a plot to bring it back and silence them.
The "Broadcaster Freedom Act" -- sponsored in the House by Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and in the Senate by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) -- is the latest effort "to keep radio airwaves free from government censorship and suppression" by marauding liberal ideologues.
Senator DeMint proclaims: "Democrats want to impose an unfair doctrine that destroys talk radio and silences the voices of millions of Americans who disagree with their vision for America."
So far the evidence for this conspiracy seems to consist of a lame joke Chuck Schumer made on Fox about "fair and balanced," an interview in which Jeff Bingaman pined for "informed discussion of public issues," and something James Inhofe overheard in an elevator. Dennis Kucinich is also rumored to be involved. The Da Vinci Code it ain't.
If I had a dollar for every time I've said it, I'd probably be a Republican. But here goes: The Fairness Doctrine is never, ever coming back -- and that's a good thing.
Let's review: It wasn't in the Democratic Party platform. No bill has been introduced in the Democrat-controlled Congress. No FCC rules are pending. And President-elect Barack Obama has stated unequivocally that he "does not support re-imposing" the Fairness Doctrine.
What's more, there is no movement among media reformers, the netroots, or the vast left-wing conspiracy to bring it back. Nobody wants it: not Free Press or Common Cause, Media Matters or MoveOn, DailyKos or the Daily Worker.
In fact, the only people actually pushing the Fairness Doctrine are Rush Limbaugh, George Will and the Republican Study Committee. It better be good for ratings and direct-mail donations, because the idea that the doctrine is a priority for anyone with any power to bring it back is completely delusional.
This new bill is a political stunt, pure and simple. But when the bill fails, as it surely will, all the same shouting heads will be all over Fox News and the AM dial claiming they're about to be gagged and that communism is on the march.
"If you really don't want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine," they'll ask, "why don't you support this legislation?"
Here's why: This is farce. And Congress has real work to do.
The economy is a mess. We're in two wars. Rod Blagojevich still has a job. Poverty. Crime. Cancer. Climate change. (OK, Inhofe doesn't believe in that last one, but still.) Osama bin Laden is still at-large. So's Dick Cheney. We still don't have a college football playoff! Need I go on?
And yet the Fairness Doctrine is supposed to be the top priority? Did we run out of post offices to name or something?
Here's a list of co-sponsors of the Broadcaster Freedom Act. Please call and ask them to get serious about the serious problems facing our country.
Rome is burning, boys. Time to put down the fiddles.
See? Doesn't that make you feel better? The Fairness Doctrine couldn't possibly be returning because Barack Obama has "stated unequivocally" that he does not support re-imposing it. And Obama would never ever tell a fib to us, would he?
Craig Aaron is so anxious to assure us of how ridiculous it is for us to even suspect that the Fairness Doctrine could return that he even posted a followup blog this past Friday:
Alert the Centers for Disease Control: The latest panic over the Fairness Doctrine is becoming a full-blown epidemic.
The hysteria is no longer limited to right-wing radio and the Republican Caucus. Some prominent Democrats are catching it, too.
The Fairness Doctrine is the long defunct federal rule that required broadcasters to present contrasting views on controversial issues. Off the books since 1987, its demise is often (and erroneously) credited with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the noise machine.
As I've written here repeatedly, there is no chance the Fairness Doctrine will come back. There's no bill to reinstate it in Congress, no public interest advocates are campaigning for it, and the netroots aren't interested. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps doesn't want it back, and President Barack Obama is unequivocally opposed.
That's why the symptoms of Fairness Doctrine Panic, or FDP, are so scary. Once afflicted, otherwise clear-headed politicians start rambling uncontrollably and putting their feet in their mouths. And FDP (first diagnosed by journalist Matthew Lasar) is highly contagious: When one person starts talking about the Fairness Doctrine, others can't help themselves.
That's the only logical explanation for the recent statements on The Bill Press Show by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) about restoring the Fairness Doctrine. Now even Bill Clinton seems to have come down with a case of FDP.
Oops! So now the fears of "paranoid Republicans" are being validated by the liberals and Democrats themselves who are calling for the return of the Fairness Doctine.
Of course, neither of these senators is in a position to actually bring back the Fairness Doctrine, unless the agriculture or banking committees are about to suddenly expand their jurisdictions. And it would seem the current Democratic president's views on the subject are more important than the last one's. But these factors won't keep the Fairness Doctrine from being topic No. 1 on talk radio and Fox News.
Stabenow, Harkin and Clinton must think paying lip service to the Fairness Doctrine keeps their base -- or at least Bill Press -- happy. But it's really just red meat for the other side, giving conservative talkers and bloggers something to rant about, raise money against, and rally their troops
Perhaps I'm missing a more subtle and sophisticated strategy in which these politicians are summoning the ghost of the Fairness Doctrine to keep Republicans so apoplectic that they won't have the energy to obstruct more important issues. I wish the Democrats were so clever.
More likely is that all this idle chatter will make it much harder to implement much-needed media reforms. Feeding the FDP encourages Republicans to attack any sensible media policy as the Fairness Doctrine in disguise.
Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell is already slamming crucial issues like Net Neutrality as the "Fairness Doctrine" for the Internet. This is ridiculous -- Net Neutrality by its very definition is content neutral -- but that doesn't mean the fear-mongering won't work.
Our leaders in Washington could instead be working to protect free speech and promote more voices in the public sphere. Congress could be moving legislation right now -- with broad popular and bipartisan support -- to rein in runaway media consolidation (the biggest obstacle to diversity of opinion on the airwaves), to increase public media funding and protect it from political interference, and to make sure the free and open Internet stays that way. Or they can keep blabbering about a backward-looking, politically doomed policy that never really worked and has been dead and gone for 20 years.
Fortunately, there is a remarkably effective and surprisingly simple treatment for FDP.
It's easy: When asked about the Fairness Doctrine, just say no. Call it the "not talking cure."
Let's do a little role-playing. Pretend I'm Bill Press:
BILL PRESS: Isn't it time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine?
DEMOCRATIC POLITICIAN: No.
BILL PRESS: Don't we need it? But isn't this the only way to keep progressive voices on the air?
DEMOCRATIC POLITICIAN: No.
BILL PRESS: Is the Fairness Doctrine ever coming back?
DEMOCRATIC POLITICIAN: No. Nope. Not. Nyet. Never.
Wasn't that easy? The beauty is that it also works with conservative hosts. And it has the added benefit of being true.
Just say no to the Fairness Doctrine. You'll be feeling better in no time.
I guess top Obama adviser, David Axelrod, missed Craig Aaron's message about the Fairness Doctrine. He just couldn't say "no" as reported by Michael Calderone of Politico.Com:
Toward the end of David Axelrod's interview on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace jumped into a lightning round of hot-button issues.
There, Wallace asked the top adviser about an issue making the rounds on both conservative and liberal radio shows, where Democratic Congressional leaders (and even Bill Clinton) have recently weighed in.
"Will you rule out reimposing the Fairness Doctrine?" asked Wallace.
"I'm going to leave that issue to Julius Genachowski, our new head of the FCC, to, and the president, to discuss," Axelrod said. "So I don't have an answer for you now."
In June, press secretary Michael Ortiz told Broadcasting & Cable that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters."
That's clear enough. But since becoming president, it's been difficult to get such a definitive statement.
Lester Kinsolving, the conservative radio host, has twice asked Robert Gibbs about it in the briefing room, and each time, the press secretary didn't reveal the administration's position.
Last week, I reached out to press office staffers in order to find out if the administration's position is the same as in June, and have not yet received a response.
If Obama's position on the Fairness Doctrine is the same as during the campaign -- and I have no reason to believe it isn't -- stating that clearly would quickly silence a lot of conservative critics who assume the Democratic president is going to push to reinstate the defunct policy. Otherwise, the Fairness Doctrine chatter on the airwaves isn't likely to die down.
It would have been so easy for Axelrod to have given a straight answer on this issue. However, don't worry. Craig Aaron has absolutely assured us that the always truthful Barack Obama, who would never ever dream of fibbing, has "unequivocally stated" that he opposes reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. And anyone who doesn't have faith in Obama keeping his "sacred" promise is just being paranoid...at least according to one Craig Aaron.