Tuesday, June 17, 2008

If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership are so certain they are right to support the “Fairness Doctrine,” why not bring a measure - any measure - to a floor vote? For a year, Mrs. Pelosi and friends have prevented movement on one Republican measure to kill this Orwellian “doctrine” idea once and for all. They do this because they know the House would act sensibly given the chance. The House showed its intent last summer, when a majority of 309 approved a one-year Fairness Doctrine moratorium attached to a financial-services bill, over the Democratic leadership’s opposition. It is censorship, and ordinary House members are rightly having none of it.

For the better part of four decades, “fairness” meant that federal authorities would monitor the airwaves for perceived political bias, imposing their own notion of “equal” time and access for other viewpoints. The most important effect of this trampling on the First Amendment was self-censorship, as broadcasters hedged their programming. The result was blander, more stifled and less free coverage. The practice was mercifully ended in 1987 when President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission voted to dismantle its own monitoring operations.

Over the last year, though, top Democrats have said repeatedly that they would like to bring the Fairness Doctrine back. Sen. Dick Durbin told the Hill newspaper a year ago that “It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. … I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they’re in a better position to make a decision.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on FOX News Sunday around the same time that because “talk radio is overwhelmingly one way,” she would be “looking at” reviving the Fairness Doctrine.

Why radio should be singled out among all our many media options, or whether government should be making these purely editorial decisions, are questions these would-be censors never explore. Americans have probably never previously enjoyed so much political news and opinion as they do now thanks to the rise of the Internet coupled with older modes such as cable television, radio and print. Some of it is “liberal,” some of it is “conservative.” Radio happens to be predominantly conservative. But the notion that there exists a “scarcity of airwaves” which requires the regulation of content is downright laughable. Never justified, it is exponentially more absurd today than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

To put the matter to rest once and for all, the Broadcaster Freedom Act, courtesy of Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and a former radio host himself, was introduced last June to formally prohibit the FCC from ever repromulgating the doctrine. It has languished in committee. At present, a discharge petition to bring a vote has garnered 195 signatures. Two-hundred eighteen are needed. Of the 309 House members who approved the one-year moratorium attached to the financial-services bill, approximately 100 have not signed the petition. Unsurprisingly, they fall along partisan lines.

What’s noteworthy regarding the 100 or so Democratic resisters, though, is that they fall all over their party’s ideological spectrum. This is not a left-right issue. From moderate-conservative Democrats like Chet Edwards of Texas and Heath Shuler of North Carolina to staunch liberals like Bobby Rush of Illinois and William Delahunt of Massachusetts, there was a consensus that the Fairness Doctrine is wrong - that, at least, is what their vote suggests.

Here’s hoping that at least 23 of these 100 lawmakers have the courage of their convictions to scuttle the Fairness Doctrine once and for all.

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