Now that Obama has disavowed the Fairness Doctrine, will conservatives stop saying it is a threat?
The popular conservative commentator's only interview with me, back in 2007, was based on a single subject: Hannity's belief that Democrats wanted to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.
"“Just to put it succinctly, here is a steady constant attempt by these guys in Washington -- it's not just one party but mostly Democrats -- to prevent people from having any say in the outcome of an election," he told me more than two years ago, when he first began crusading on the subject. "I think it’s a very serious threat to the First Amendment ...I guess they want to hire government bureaucrats and monitors to determine if (material) meets their definition of fairness. Liberals can’t compete in the open market, and an entire liberal radio network has failed. It’s a very dangerous idea.”
One of the St. Petersburg Times' Washington-based reporters, Wes Allison, has an interesting piece today on the issue, noting that President Obama has recently restated an opinion he offered last year, that he was not interested in reviving the Fairness Doctrine -- a policy created by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 mandating that broadcasters present multiple views on important topics.
At various times, Democratic bigwigs such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, failed presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and, most recently, former President Bill Clinton have spoken approvingly of bringing back the doctrine 20 years after the FCC stopped enforcing it -- mostly as a way of breaking conservative commentators' stranglehold on commercial talk radio.
I think conservatives are overstating the impact of such a doctrine -- in the past, it only required broadcasters to offer contrasting viewpoints on issues, it didn't ban voices from the airwaves. And the issue has became a way for right-wing commentators and politicians to gin up audiences and political support, with little evidence anyone is actually doing anything to reinstate the rule.
Barack Obama, the party's most successful current Democratic politician currently, has twice now said he's not on board (as has acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps). And he's right, for many different reasons:
The doctrine eventually requires the government to decide how commentators speak on the news -- As Hannity said so eloquently when we spoke: Who wants a government bureaucrat deciding what is fair coverage?
These days, different political viewpoints dominate different media platforms -- Conservatives may dominate commercial talk radio, but liberals seem to succeed on the Internet and in documentary films. Good luck finding an avowedly conservative host leading a program on National Public Radio. And while conservative voices have dominated cable TV for 10 years, MSNBC is now finding success minting its own brand of pugnacious liberalism.
Reviving the doctrine would supercharge conservatives -- Radio shouters such as Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have galvanized a legion of followers with the issue, simply on the strength of some Democrats talking about it. Obama is a smart enough politician to know the last thing Democrats need is to hand Republicans an issue in which they might actually be persecuted. And I think he has a few more important things to worry about.
The FCC is one court decision away from losing its power to regulate broadcast content anyway -- In an increasingly diverse media universe, it is getting harder for the FCC to defend fines for explicit content on radio and network TV -- something the agency has always enforced. Reviving the Fairness Doctrine would almost certainly spark a lawsuit, which could invalidate the agency's ability to regulate any broadcast content.
Reviving the doctrine might kill a very profitable business or two -- Talk radio and cable TV news channels have made quite a bit of money on commentators with a particular point of view, whether its Hannity and Limbaugh on the right or Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann on the left. With the economy hurting the way it is, does anyone really want to mess with a media business that is actually succeeding?