Democrats' New 'Fairness' Push May Silence Conservative Radio Hosts, Critics Say

July 7, 2008 - 7:23 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Democrats in Congress are pushing for legislation that they say would bring more balance to the media, but critics say would muzzle conservative voices.

The Fairness Doctrine, a federal regulation requiring broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial issue, was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission from 1949 to 1987, when it was dropped during the Reagan administration.

Many in the broadcast industry credit the dropping of the rule to the rise of conservative talk radio that became a booming industry, featuring personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

Bringing back the regulation will ensure more even-handed coverage of political issues, said Jeff Lieberson, spokesman for Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who has proposed the "Media Ownership Reform Act."

"The political interests of media owners can have a direct and indirect effect on the way news is presented to the public, so it's important that all sides are heard," Lieberson told Cybercast News Service Tuesday.

The Fairness Doctrine is a key component of Hinchey's bill, which also sets tighter limits on media ownership. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has proposed a companion bill in the Senate.

"This is not an attempt to muzzle them at all," Lieberson said of conservative talk show hosts who are opposed to the Fairness Doctrine. "They will still be heard. This will ensure that different views that are not theirs will also be heard."

But muzzling is exactly what such a law would do, charged Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in the Media, a conservative media watchdog group.

"Make no bones about it, they want to force the conservative media to hand over air time to liberals," Kincaid said in an interview. "When federal bureaucrats dictate the content of radio and TV shows, it's muzzling to tell them what to say and how to say it."

Many conservatives have long argued that the bulk of major newspapers, news magazines and network news programs tilt left and regard talk radio as an antidote.

"Liberals used to dominate the media, and they are irritated there are competing voices, so now they want to reign in the conservative media using the federal government," Kincaid continued. "There is no prohibition against liberal talk radio. Liberals tried talk radio and it was not successful in the market place."

Kincaid pointed to Air America, the liberal talk radio network started in 2004 that is now in bankruptcy but still operating with a limited audience.

The Fairness Doctrine was adopted by the FCC in 1949 as a regulation, never a law enacted by Congress. The effort now by Democrats in Congress is to codify the doctrine into law.

When the rule was in place, radio and TV stations could face hefty fines if their stations aired controversial statements on public affairs without providing equal time to opposing viewpoints. Critics said the result was self-censorship by timid broadcasters who avoided politics to escape any potential government retaliation.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that the doctrine did not violate the First Amendment, because the airwaves belonged to the public and thus could face government regulation to which print media were not subjected.

After the FCC ditched the rule in 1987, Democratic lawmakers made several attempts to bring it back in statute. Those attempts were unsuccessful even when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress in 1993 and 1994.

Despite the 1969 court ruling, Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, told Cybercast News Service Tuesday it was fundamentally a First Amendment question.

"It was not appropriately named," Wharton said of the doctrine. "It was unfair in inhibiting broadcasters' free speech rights.

"There has been an explosion of viewpoints and coverage of issues since the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine," Wharton said. "It's been a boon for free expression."

Hinchey, chairman of the "Future of Media Caucus" in the House, is among several
Democratic lawmakers who spoke at the National Conference on Media Reform in Memphis, Tenn., this past weekend.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), chairman of the House subcommittee on domestic policy, announced he would hold hearings on the media, which would include looking at restoring the Fairness Doctrine.

"We know the media has become the servant of a very narrow corporate agenda," Kucinich, a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, reportedly told the Memphis event.

"We are now in a position to move a progressive agenda to where it is visible," he said.

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