Rush Limbaugh makes an unusual martyr. He's a rich, white and often rather nasty celebrity. He has the look of a man who eats steak for breakfast. But a martyr is exactly what he will become if some of America's most prominent politicians get their way.
Richard Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, claims that it is time to "reinstitute the fairness doctrine," referring to a federal rule, in place in 1949-87, that guaranteed "ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views" on the airwaves.
Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, says that she is looking at reinstatement.
Even Trent Lott, a leading Republican, is hinting at jumping on the bandwagon. "Talk radio is running America," he complained when the immigration bill went down in flames.
The talk-radio hosts were certainly at their xenophobic worst during the immigration debate. But none of that is a reason for formatting them out of existence. The "fairness doctrine" is a hangover from a prehistoric technological era. It is an assault on free speech. Serious politicians such as Durbin and Feinstein should be ashamed of themselves for digging it up.
The fairness doctrine was introduced in a world when the airwaves were a scarce public commodity dominated by three networks. The doctrine always involved unattractive trade-offs.
The Federal Communications Commission got into the unfortunate business of regulating political speech and constructing elaborate measures of "fairness." Broadcasters were forced to accept limits on free speech that print journalists would have gagged on.
But these days there is no shortage of radio spectrum. America is buzzing with more than 14,000 radio stations. There is nothing to stop liberals - or indeed communists, Trotskyites or Spartacists - from establishing their own stations. The reason why the leftist flagship Air America Radio almost ran aground last year was not because of lack of spectrum but because of lack of talent and good management.
And radio spectrum is only the beginning of it. The years since the Reagan administration pronounced that the fairness doctrine was outdated have seen a media revolution. Not just the arrival of satellite radio and cable television, but also the birth of blogs, podcasts, YouTube and God knows what else.
Doesn't this new media world guarantee "ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views"? And doesn't it make the idea of regulating the airwaves in the name of a government-mandated idea of fairness seem a bit quixotic?
The new apostles of "fairness" advance two arguments in favor of going back to the past. The first is that the ownership structure of radio stations is unfair. A handful of mighty companies such as the Sinclair Broadcast Group use their market dominance to push a right-wing agenda.
A report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, points out that the top five commercial station-owners overwhelmingly favor conservative talkers over their liberal rivals: 91 percent of the talk that they broadcast is conservative.
The problem with this argument is that talk radio represents only about 3-4 percent of the radio market. Limbaugh draws 13.5-million listeners a week. National Public Radio, which strives to be fair and balanced but leans to the left, draws 20-million.
The second argument is that people ought to be exposed to both sides of the debate. "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," says Durbin. But should the state really be in the business of regulating what political views people are exposed to? Nobody thinks that readers of the Nation should be forced to read the National Review as well.
Whatever its problems, America does not suffer from a shortage of opinion or debate. The radio waves buzz with comment from the left-wing Pacifica Radio to the far-right nutcases. Every man and his dog has a blog.
The idea that the government should be hauled in to regulate a fraction of this exploding universe is absurd. No wonder Congress has an even lower approval rating than Bush.
2007, Economist Newspaper Ltd.