Limbaugh Critic Argues Against Fairness Doctrine

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), the only Republican senator to criticize conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh - and who faces a 2008 challenge for his seat from failed liberal talk radio host Al Franken - warned against government regulation of talk radio on Thursday.

However, he did not retract his criticism of Limbaugh.

The issue of the Fairness Doctrine was raised again this week as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats took to the Senate floor to blast Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" comment.

The Fairness Doctrine is a federal regulation that requires broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial issue. It was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 1949 to 1987, when it was rescinded during the Reagan administration.

Limbaugh made his comments on-air on Sept. 26 and has stated that he was referring to Jesse Macbeth, a Washington state man sentenced to five months in prison for falsifying claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and claiming to have witnessed atrocities by American soldiers in Iraq when he, in reality, never served overseas.

Democrats insist that Limbaugh was talking about all soldiers who oppose the war in Iraq and have demanded that he apologize.

In a written statement on Monday, when the Limbaugh flap exploded on Capitol Hill, Coleman said: "Limbaugh's suggestion that those who have served their country and express their opinions are 'phony soldiers' is wrong. There needs to be a level of civility and honest debate in this country about issues as important as this."

Coleman also compared Limbaugh's statement to the liberal's controversial ad calling Gen. David Petreus , commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, "Gen. Betray Us."

"Labeling an active duty general a traitor, or calling a soldier a phony for having a different opinion does not rise to the level of discourse we hold ourselves to in this country," said Coleman.

On Thursday, Coleman acknowledged that Limbaugh may have been talking about one individual rather than every veteran opposed to the war, but Coleman did not retract his criticism.

"My point about that, not what did Rush say, what he didn't say, I'm very clear about this," said Coleman, when speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

"I think we need to elevate the level of debate. The MoveOn thing was absolutely clear and explicit. It was calling the commander-in-chief of our armed forces in a time of war a traitor. It clearly crossed the line, and folks understood that," he added.

"What was originally reported with Rush in his comment, my first reaction was if those are his comments, it's wrong," said Coleman.

"Rush has clarified, but my point is still the same point. I think we just need to do better, I think we need to rise above the level of debate. Here's a legitimate concern about an individual, if they were a legitimate soldier. That's a different issue. But again, I think we need to do better," he said.

Fearing the Limbaugh flap would be used as leverage to push the Fairness Doctrine, House Republicans filed a petition Monday with the House Rules Committee to force action on a bill to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from imposing the doctrine without the approval of Congress.

"Americans should be able to make listening and viewing decisions based on what they believe is fair and balanced," Coleman said.

Prominent Democrats such as Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), John Kerry (Mass.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) have all argued for re-implementing the Fairness Doctrine. Coleman warned that if a Democrat is elected president, "then we're only one FCC commissioner away from a change."

Coleman admitted that it's rare he would say, "Dan Rather had it right." But he went on to quote the former CBS News anchor, who said in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine, "Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost."

Supporters of restoring the Fairness Doctrine have argued that liberal viewpoints are squeezed out of the debate on talk radio and that listeners are not able to get both sides of an issue.

Coleman had doubts that restoring the regulation would make talk radio more liberal.

"The Fairness Doctrine is going to lessen the level of political discourse," he said. "People are just going to step back from doing what they're doing. It would have a chilling effect on the First Amendment."

Taking a shot at his likely opponent for the Senate in 2008, Coleman pointed out that the liberal Air America radio network, where Al Franken once had a show, was a market failure.

"The reasoning at this point is that Big Brother should step in because of a market failure and overturn that market failure," Coleman said.

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