WASHINGTON — Republicans in the U.S. House have marshaled a "rapid response team" to warn of dire consequences. The topic dominated the annual debate between New York University's College Republicans and College Democrats. And a conservative legal think tank already is searching for someone to sue.
Few threats, real or perceived, make conservatives howl louder than the Fairness Doctrine.
Conservative commentators have spent the week in high dudgeon over a report that a powerful Democrat in the U.S. House was directing secret talks with the Obama administration to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct federal regulation that required editorial balance on the airwaves. It's a policy seen, these days, as a stake aimed at Rush Limbaugh's heart.
But ask around Washington and it's hard to find anyone in charge who says the Democrats have designs on bringing it back.
"President Obama does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," said White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai, in keeping with Obama's position during the campaign.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has expressed support for the Fairness Doctrine, but House leadership aides say she has no plans to push it in Congress. Democrats don't think they would have the votes to pass it anyway.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it's not on his agenda either. Same with the House and Senate commerce committees, which oversee the Federal Communications Commission, aides said. Same with the FCC and broadcast industry groups.
"We have more than enough problems facing this country," said Jim Manley, a senior adviser to Reid. "The last thing we need is for the right wing to start ginning up phony issues."
Like Dracula, the Fairness Doctrine is dead but always lurking.
In recent weeks, the right has cobbled together enough quotes from the left to suggest that the threat is credible. The right has cited comments by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and some liberal House members expressing a desire for hearings on requiring balance on talk radio, which is dominated by conservatives.
"There needs to be some accountability and standards put in place," Stabenow told liberal radio talker Bill Press, whose show is being canceled in Washington.
These members of Congress lack the clout to make the change, and a spokeswoman for Harkin said he has nothing planned. Still, their comments earned extra oomph, thanks to conservatives' deep-seated suspicions about the Obama administration and their sense that Democrats yearn to "hush Rush."
The conditions were right for a wildfire, then, when the conservative American Spectator published an article Monday describing a meeting between House Energy and Commerce Committee staff and the FCC. The subject: how to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.
Fox News picked up the story Tuesday, and by Wednesday it was a leading topic among conservative radio hosts and Web sites. One, World Net Daily, launched an online petition to "block congressional attacks on freedom of speech and press."
The House Republican Conference deployed its four-man Fairness Doctrine Rapid Response Team to make the case against reinstating the rule. Meanwhile, the conservative Thomas More Law Center began drafting a federal lawsuit on behalf of host Michael Savage and his right to stay on the air.
Its attorneys plan to file the suit the moment the Fairness Doctrine returns, either through Congress or the FCC.
Spokespeople for Rep. Harry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and for the FCC say the meeting the Spectator described never happened. And Fox has since reported that the Obama administration has no plans for the Fairness Doctrine.
But on his radio show Wednesday, Limbaugh said the denials from the White House are not credible "because there is an expiration date on every Obama statement.''
"He can say today he doesn't believe in it, but then something of an emergency will come up … and force him to change his mind."
The Fairness Doctrine was instituted in 1949. It didn't limit what was on the air, as some conservative activists suggest it would, but required stations to air opposing viewpoints.
The Supreme Court upheld it in 1969, but the ruling made it clear that the court could reverse itself if technology expanded the available broadcast outlets.
The FCC scrapped the rule in 1987 after a report showed that many stations avoided controversial issues because of concerns about how the Fairness Doctrine might be applied.
"Since the elimination of the rule, there's been an explosion of media alternatives, from cable TV to satellite TV, satellite radio," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for National Association of Broadcasters, which insists that the Fairness Doctrine is no longer needed.
He added that the rule would apply to stations of all ideologies, not only conservative radio. "It would apply to Bill Moyers, it would apply to NPR, who some people think is a little left, and it would apply to network nightly news, who conservatives are always railing about."
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a former radio station owner and member of the GOP response team, and other conservative leaders say they worry that the Obama administration or Congress may try to sneak the Fairness Doctrine through by changing the name or by changing FCC rules to expand minority ownership or increase the ability of station advisory boards to dictate programming.
"Regardless how they label it or name it, the potential impact will quickly be obvious to people who care about this issue, and they won't be able to dodge the hornets' nest they'll stir up," Walden warned. "I hear about it everywhere I go."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.