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On-air hot air

Only those who hate free and open debate oppose reincarnating the Fairness Doctrine



The current straw tiger of far-reich talk-radio hosts is something called the Fairness Doctrine. If you listen to the radio blather -- Atlanta's own Neal Boortz is spewing much of it -- there is an insidious leftist plot to re-establish the doctrine.

Boortz wrote on his blog last week: "You don't have to look far to see threats from the left as to what they're going to do with and to talk radio when they get control in Washington. ... A return to the Fairness Doctrine would effectively mean the end of talk radio as we now know it in this country."

Oh, horrors.

Boortz, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and the rest of the right's echo chamber omit the full story. They don't let on that they inhabit your airwaves. Those frequencies don't belong to them or the stations. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 stated, in an opinion that upheld the previous incarnation of the Fairness Doctrine: "[T]he licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a ... frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others ... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."

The Goebbels Airwave Battalion knows this, and is afraid you'll discover the truth. With that in mind, the talk hosts have also started an attack on the concept of public airwaves. Boortz, in another post last week, frantically declared: "This 'public ownership' nonsense is nothing more than a canard created by the political class to excuse government control of a major means for the dissemination of information – a concept essential to despots."

It would be a little extreme to expect Boortz to know the history of his own business. Ignorance, after all, is the main currency on talk radio. Early in the history of broadcasting, Americans realized there were a limited number of spots on the radio and TV dials. Congress created the Federal Communications Commission to referee those who occupied the airwaves.

If you follow Boortz's illogical ranting, then we'd witness total chaos. Anyone – and any number of anyones – could set up a station broadcasting on, say, WSB's 750-AM dial position. That's "free enterprise," and instead of hearing the mellifluous tones of the "Talkmaster" in the morning, we'd be assaulted by the screeches of competing broadcasters trying to drown out each other. On second thought, that could be fun.

But these guys really don't want that. They want the government to enforce their usurpation of the airwaves, thereby creating monopolies that function as Bush's Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

Another reason for "public" airwaves: In the last century, America witnessed the rise of totalitarian governments in Europe. An essential tool of the dictators was media control. America wisely feared broadcasting being dominated by one point of view. So we adopted the Fairness Doctrine, which – until enforcement stopped under Ronald Reagan – ensured that multiple points of view were heard on radio and TV.

There are repeated arguments – mendacious rationalizations – the talk hosts cite in decrying a return to the Fairness Doctrine.

First, they clamor, there is no commercial viability to liberal/progressive/left talk radio. The evidence of that, they say, is that there are so few liberals on the radio.

Second, there are many alternative media – primarily the Internet – so the FCC has no reason to reregulate the airwaves.

Third, free speech would be endangered by the Fairness Doctrine, since the left controls the rest of the media.

To the third point, the only appropriate response is: bullshit. The right totally dominates one cable channel, Fox, as well as talk radio, and has intimidated most of the rest of the media. The biggest media story of the last four years was the total breakdown of the press in covering Bush's rampage to war. The media abandoned their responsibilities, and failed to investigate the glaringly obvious lies – before the prevarications turned into hundreds of thousands of bodies.

The second point is more vapor. Broadcasting is unique because there are a limited number of frequencies. The Internet hasn't changed that.

The first point is more complex. But Boortz provides the ammunition to shoot down himself along with the rest of the disinformation squadron. He wrote: "[T]he Fairness Doctrine was a favorite of the right during the Nixon years, used often to badger left-leaning talkers who got in the Nixon Administration's way."

What do we learn from that statement? That there is commercial viability to leftist talk radio. During the 1960s and 1970s, liberal talkers clearly garnered huge audiences, enough to offend Richard Nixon. Those who remember back that far recall that left and right battled it out with ideas. Both sides had solid and roughly equal economic support.

Something must have happened to those liberal talkers. It had nothing to do with free enterprise or free speech or commercial appeal. Rather, we had the rise of corporate monopolies.

Historically, companies were limited to owning only a handful of stations. The FCC loosened those restraints, and ultimately all but did away with them in 1996. From a time when there were hundreds of owners, we now have a handful. Four companies, with conservative Clear Channel leading the pack, control what 67 percent of news-radio listeners hear.

There has been a vast homogenization of the airwaves since 1996. It's cheaper for the companies to broadcast syndicated hosts and programming than it is to be localized. Putting right-wingers in the shrinking number of on-air spots ensures broadcasters favored treatment from the Bush-controlled FCC. Couple that with the fact that most of the broadcast giants – again, Clear Channel is the poster child – are run by right-wingers, and you get the picture why there's nothing else on most talk stations but untruthful, hate-filled, often racist demagoguery.

For the would-be authoritarians in the Republican Party, that's good. In the run-up to Bush's war, two-thirds of our country embraced the lie that Saddam Hussein was complicit in 9/11. Why did they believe that glaring and easily corrected falsehood? Because they heard it repeated over and over and over on Fox News and conservative talk radio.

Had the Fairness Doctrine ensured the other side – the truth – be broadcast, maybe there wouldn't be 3,500 dead American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of slain Iraqis in a war that was lost before the first shot was fired.

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