A political spat involving talk radio emerged in Congress on the heels of a report this week critical of “conservative dominance” of the industry, whose credibility is being questioned separately.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said he overheard two influential senators advocating a “legislative fix” for the influence of “extremist” talk-radio hosts.
“This was on the elevator from the basement to the second floor of the Capitol to vote,” Mr. Inhofe told The Washington Times yesterday. “They were upset about something, they hardly noticed I was even there.
“They were complaining about something they heard on talk radio. They said, ‘This is just ridiculous — all these talk-radio shows, they’re all for right-wing extremists. There ought to be a legislative fix to this,’ ” Mr. Inhofe said. “I said to them, ‘You girls don’t understand. Talk radio is all market-driven and there’s no market for your liberal tripe.’ ”
Mr. Inhofe said the conversation took place about three years ago, but noted that he described it to a Los Angeles radio host yesterday as “the other day.”
“Senator Boxer told me that either her friend Senator Inhofe needs new glasses or he needs to have his hearing checked, because that conversation never happened,” said Natalie Ravitz, Mrs. Boxer’s spokeswoman.
“Jim Inhofe is wrong,” added Philippe Reines, spokesman for Mrs. Clinton. “This supposed conversation never happened — not in his presence or anywhere else.”
The two offices also were quick to seize on Mr. Inhofe’s timing slip.
Mr. Inhofe said he shared the story in speeches numerous times, but it gained legs this week. On Thursday, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and the liberal group Free Press released a report that concluded conservatives dominate the commercial talk-radio industry 9-1. Mr. Inhofe’s story was later posted as the banner item on the Drudge Report Web site.
“I have told this story on talk radio in speeches over a hundred times, and then all of a sudden somebody cares,” Mr. Inhofe joked yesterday in between appearances on Fox News Channel’s “Your World” with Neil Cavuto and “The Big Story” with John Gibson.
The report concluded that 91 percent of weekday talk radio is conservative, compared with liberal content at 9 percent. The group, which said it analyzed 257 news and talk stations owned by the five biggest radio broadcasters, calls for stricter media-ownership limits and fines for not abiding by public-interest requirements.
The 40-page report’s objectivity has been challenged by conservatives because one of its seven authors has commercial ties to the left-wing talk-radio industry.
Paul Woodhull, listed as a “special adviser,” is a founding member of the companies that produce two of the most popular liberal programs, “The Ed Schultz Show” and “The Bill Press show.”
“Nothing in the report dicloses Woodhull’s conflict of interest,” conservative talk-show host Mark Levin blogged on the conservative National Review Online. “You’re led to believe that the findings were unbiased and untainted. It now turns out that the author has a direct financial interest in using the government to dismantle conservative talk radio.”
Mr. Woodhull agreed that there should have been a note about his affiliation in the report.
“I think that’s fair that perhaps there should have been something indicating that in the report,” he said yesterday, adding that his contributions were mainly in the form of providing anecdotes, “a minor sentence here, a paragraph there.”
“I was basically a first-hand eyewitness to the inception of the format,” he said. “They did ask me to take a look at it, to make sure they didn’t make any errors” in classifying a station as conservative or “progressive.”
Theodore LeCompte, spokesman for the Center for American Progress, said Mr. Woodhull’s industry connections do not compromise the report’s impartiality.
“We asked him to contribute to the report because of his expertise as a programmer,” Mr. LeCompte said. “I think the data would stand up to any statistical scrutiny.”
Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said research from advocacy groups should be looked at differently than from groups “that are really trying to do social science in a disinterested way, and whose findings vary depending on what they’re studying.”
“But basically if there’s any possibility that people might imagine there’s a conflict of interest or something in your background is relevant, then it’s better to disclose,” he added.
The report, with Mr. Inhofe’s account of the Boxer-Clinton conversation, gave rise to speculation that lawmakers may try to revive the “Fairness Doctrine,” a rule that required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing viewpoints. The Federal Communications Commission repealed it in 1987, saying it violated the First Amendment and did not further the public interest.
“I don’t think either senator is so stupid as to say such a thing and mean it,” said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine said. “It’s just unworkable and it could backfire for either party.”
Mr. Inhofe said he heard talk recently on the Senate floor of reviving the doctrine but didn’t know of any specific plans.
“I think every Democrat senator would be in favor of that and certainly every Democrat running for president,” he said, adding that he would fight such a measure “with every fiber of my being. It’s unconstitutional.”