Saturday, April 14, 2007


Two words: Fairness Doctrine

By Byron York

In October 2004, Media Matters for America, the liberal watchdog group run by former American Spectator writer David Brock, announced a campaign to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine, the government regulation that, before it was repealed in 1987, required broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on controversial public issues. “Tired of imbalanced political discourse on our airwaves?” Brock asked readers in a petition appeal. “Media Matters for America has joined with Democracy Radio and the Media Access Project in calling on Congress to restore the Fairness Doctrine.”

At the time, Brock was supporting a bill by Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter that would have created a new Fairness Doctrine. “By restoring a diversity of fact and opinion to programming,” Brock continued, “Fairness Doctrine legislation restores a concept that has been lost since the 1980s — that because the public owns the airwaves, the public is entitled to be adequately informed by the broadcasters of news and opinion.”

In recent days Brock, who once described Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill as “a bit slutty,” has been one of the leading voices condemning radio host Don Imus for his description of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Now that Imus has been fired from his radio and television programs, Brock is calling for similar campaigns against a number of conservatives in talk radio and television, including Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Neil Boortz, and Glenn Beck. “It is our hope that [the Imus matter] will begin a broader conversation about the responsibility that news corporations, journalists, and media figures have to the American public,” Brock wrote Thursday. “This is an opportunity for the media to truly raise the bar to a higher standard and return to the fundamentals of journalism.”

For Brock and others, that “opportunity” could involve new government regulation. After the Imus affair, former Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton said on CNN, “The question becomes whether or not we are going to have a regulatory policy that goes based on how contrite someone behaves or whether or not they step over the line. Are we going to have policy, or are we going to say, ‘If you say you’re sorry or even convince us you are sorry, policy’s out the window?’”

Without changes in the government regulatory structure, Sharpton argued, “The next guy can do the same thing and use the precedent of Don Imus to say, ‘I can’t be punished.’”

Restoring the Fairness Doctrine has long been a hope of the Left. Rep. Slaughter has been a consistent champion of the initiative, and in recent years her campaign has drawn the support of the liberal bloggers who have become a major part of Democratic politics. “Requiring public airwaves to present all sides of an issue would end the stranglehold of one-dimensional talk radio,” wrote the influential Democratic blogger/strategist/fundraiser Chris Bowers on the site in 2005. “This is an important battle we could win. Even if the bill isn’t passed, its overwhelming popularity and reformist appeal gives us a huge issue for 2006 and beyond.”

Of course, a revived Fairness Doctrine might spell the end of liberal talk radio. But Brock and other liberal activists aren’t complaining; trading the bankrupt and small-audience Air America for the hugely popular Limbaugh would be fine with them.

One seldom-remarked irony of the current controversy is that in the 1980s debate over the Fairness Doctrine, some of the Doctrine’s loudest defenders were conservative activists. The late Reed Irvine, who founded the group Accuracy In Media, argued that repeal would make the problem of liberal bias in the media even worse. “Many [broadcasters] have done no more than pay lip service to fairness even when it was required by law,” Irvine wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 1987. “It is foolish to think that they would suddenly become addicted to fairness if all legal restraints on their uninhibited exercise of power were removed.” In addition, some conservatives used the Doctrine to file suits against media organizations — among other cases, the Doctrine was part of Gen. William Westmoreland’s action against CBS News. After repeal of the Doctrine and the growth of conservative talk radio, those activists abandoned their opposition.

Now it is the liberal watchdogs who want new regulation. And after the Imus affair, they sense new energy for their cause.

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