- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

President Obama’s effort to clear the air last week has failed to ease conservative fears that the White House and congressional Democrats are conspiring to dominate the airwaves.

At issue is the “Fairness Doctrine,” a rule that, from 1949 to 1987, mandated that broadcasters present contrasting views on controversial issues. Despite Mr. Obama’s denials, leading conservative talk-show hosts and their allies in Congress warn that a plan is afoot to revive the rule in camouflaged form with a simple goal in mind: silencing conservative talk radio.

After weeks of ambiguous signals, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Wednesday that Mr. Obama would not take up calls by leading congressional Democrats to resurrect the rule, dropped by the Federal Communications Commission in the last years of the Reagan administration.

“As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated,” Mr. LaBolt told Foxnews.com on Wednesday.

But that statement has not satisfied the skeptics, who insist Democrats are eager to muzzle the one medium dominated by conservatives - talk radio.

“I’m glad President Obama finally confirmed his opposition to the Fairness Doctrine … but many Democrats in Congress are still pushing it,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who vows to force a Senate vote on the question this week.

“With the support of the new administration, now is the time for Congress to take a stand against this kind of censorship,” he said.

Top-rated radio host Rush Limbaugh warned not to read too much into Mr. Obama’s declaration.

“Of course they’re not going to bring back the ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ They’re going to call it something else,” he said.

Just days before Mr. LaBolt’s statement, presidential adviser David Axelrod pointedly declined to rule out a possible reimposition of the rule. A string of prominent Democrats - including former President Bill Clinton and Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Tom Harkin of Iowa - have either endorsed the doctrine or called for broader regulation that would bring more “balance” to the airwaves.

Capitol Hill Republicans are pushing a bill to bar lawmakers and any future FCC from reviving the doctrine, but with no legislation in the works and with Mr. Obama’s statement, some say conservative talk-radio hosts are merely exploiting the specter of a Fairness Doctrine to garner ratings.

“I think that should pretty much be the nail in the coffin,” said John Halpin, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that in 2007 published a report on the conservative dominance of talk radio. “No one is interested in regulating or mandating balanced content. We propose ownership diversity and more localism.”

Mr. Halpin said conservatives who accuse the left of trying to silence talk radio are conflating separate issues.

“We’re just trying to say that there are downsides to concentrated ownership,” he said. “Too much nationally syndicated programming is harming local needs. It has nothing to do with what particular talk-radio hosts are saying. It has to do with local communities.”

Similarly, a House Democrat who in 2005 included the Fairness Doctrine as part of a larger media-reform bill plans to leave it out when he introduces the reform legislation later this session, instead focusing on media ownership caps and new public-interest reporting requirements.

“The congressman is focused on reforming the media and the ill effects that are associated with media consolidation,” said Jeff Lieberson, a spokesman for Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, New York Democrat. “That’s not to say that he’s not in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, but I think that from a practical standpoint, this is the most effective way that he thinks he can go about bringing about the change that he thinks is needed.”

But others are not so circumspect.

Mr. Harkin, in an interview with liberal talk-show host Bill Press, said recently that “we gotta get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again” to boost liberal alternatives to the conservative programs that dominate the market.

The FCC has the authority to act on the doctrine, as well as on questions of local content and media-ownership issues, without Congress.

Mr. Obama’s nominee to head the agency, Julius Genachowski, has not publicly discussed his position on the doctrine and did not return a request for comment.

If the doctrine were to return in a new form, FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said it would probably be under the mantle of local-content or viewpoint-diversity rules.

Mr. McDowell, a Republican whose term on the board expires June 30, said “those all sound like noble endeavors until you start examining the underbelly there - the constitutional concerns, which spring from essentially forced speech by the government.”

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