Journalism

Too much Rush? Dems lose bid to regulate talk radio

Rush will drone on, relatively unopposed, on the airways. So will Sean and Bill.

Overlooked Thursday because of the various political and media brouhahas caused by the defeat of the miasma known as the immigration reform bill and the release of additional stomach-turning Supreme Court decisions was the House of Representatives’ rejection of a Democratic attempt to impose the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters who feature conservative hosts.

By a 309-115 vote, the House barred the Federal Communications Commission from requiring conservative broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly to balance their content with liberal programming. Once again, the Democrats tried the easy road rather than the intellectually honest one.

A little history: The FCC established the Fairness Doctrine about eight decades ago in the belief broadcasters were trustees of the public’s airwaves and thus, if editorializing should occur, “had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance.” During President Reagan’s sweeping 1980s deregulation of everything he could get his hands on, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine. (See more here.)

The argument for FCC intervention:

Something resembling a “fairness” doctrine is needed because conservative viewpoints dominate over-the-air broadcasts. The public needs “balanced” viewpoints so it can make better-informed judgments about public policy.

So says Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.): “It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. 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.”

Both? Sen. Durbin ought to know that the world of opinion has long since advanced beyond the notion of just two sides to a story. Therefore, who gets to define “balanced”? As it is, who’s defining “conservative” in the context of such broadcasts? If the House demands the FCC balance “conservative” with “liberal,” then “progressives” and “libertarians” and “greens” will demand their “fair” share of air time. And who defines “fair”?

The argument against FCC intervention:

In a world with so many media choices — newspapers, Web sites, blogs, cable channels, etc. — there’s plenty of opportunities for all sorts of programming to be experienced by virtually everyone. Therefore, regulation to enforce “balance” is unnecessary.

So says (of all people) House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio): “The best way is to let the judgment of the American people decide, and they can decide with their finger. [People] can turn it off or they can turn it on. They can go to their computer and read it on the Internet.”

(I’ve always had a suggestion for what most politicians can do “with their finger.” But we’ll leave that for another time.)

As much as I hate saying this, Boehner’s right. People can find commentary (and foolishness) that’s not “conservative” on the airways. Not much, mind you. The market for opinion has been dominated by conservative commentators such as Mr. Limbaugh. If drug charges didn’t kill Mr. Limbaugh’s ratings and get him off the air, then Air America ‘s programming certainly isn’t.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) touched on the notion of something called “the market” determining choice: “Rather than having the government regulate what people can say, we should let the market decide what people want to hear. That’s precisely why the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned, and that’s why it ought not to be revived.”

(I also doubt a newly constituted “fairness” doctrine would pass untouched through the newly conservative Supreme Tout, Court. It’s going to become a market-friendly court.)

If the “liberals” (or the “progressives” or the “libertarians” or the “greens”) want genuine counterpoint — and counter-programming — to that represented by Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Hannity or Mr. O’Reilly, then they should consider this word: invest.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, GOP political consultants Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater understood that. They took a long view — literally a two-decades-long view of a conservative agenda later advanced by the ’94 GOP revolution of Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich to place conservative thought in the minds of the masses in a familiar language (country and NASCAR) and a familiar medium (talk radio).

Liberals: Want better political programming choices? Invest. With time, money and talent. Undernourished attempts to get into the public’s mind like Air America and Democracy Now just aren’t sufficient. Stop hiding your intellectual and courage deficits behind attempts to regulate your way back into the public’s consciousness.

Get better ideas than the other guy, and then act decisively on them.

xpost: 5th Estate

10 replies »

  1. The problem here is one of ownership. When only 5 or 6 big businesses are allowed to own everything, then how is someone opposed to their POV going to get in a word edgewise? And now with the attack on net neutrality, they are getting ready to do it all over again. This is a problem of too much money and too much power all in the hands of a very few, whose goal is to have more. And it’s pretty difficult to get around that.

  2. Will,

    I agree with you. When pundits speak of “liberal bias,” I tend to blow chunks. The only bias worth discussing is the economic bias of media owners.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. The problem with your argument: Broadcast media VASTLY overwhelms internet media, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And broadcast media is owned almost exclusively by right-wingers.

    Sure, the “other side” can be heard. But you have to look for it, and frankly, most people don’t and won’t.

    This goes far beyond the interests of who owns what radio stations. This is about informing the entire electorate about political issues. And the current system is doing a damned poor job.

  4. Americans have grown an acceptance that what most of us stand for, or vote for will be batted down or annuled by just enough right wingers walking in lock step to stop any action to change anything. If something goes to the supremes, the outcome is predictable. Our only hope for a return to the America we once knew is the 08 election. I find myself doubting that it will ever be held, and if so, stolen and approved of by those who seek to rape and pillage the treasury, or those nuts who yearn for a theocracy. Where are the students? it’s theirs to lose.

  5. Nice analysis, Denny. Of course, I’m jaded as hell – it’s been a LONG time since I thought radio was of value for anything other than sports talk.

    However, radio is a wonderful case study for how a real culture war is fought. The right figured out a strategy to gut the airwaves of anything at all with intellectual value…

    [sigh] Say it with me: “The public interest is what the public is interested in.”

  6. When the FCC was created and began enforcing exclusive access to the airwaves, 2/3 of all radio stations then operating were shut down, including every minority owned station. The fairness doctrine was created to prevent the law giving radio speech rights to some and not others from being challenged as unconstitutional. Now people are ignoring the inherent censorship involved in granting exclusive broadcast speech rights to some and not others to argue against laws giving lip service access to voices excluded from the airwaves by law.

  7. This is a principle that is touched on in the comments above, but I’d like to state it more categorically and geometrically.

    MONEY is an element that takes on HUMAN CHARACTERISTICS. It has an agenda. If money can BUY VOTES then it can ELECT OFFICIALS that will block its opponents and facilitate its takeover of more of the MEANS, not of production, but of acquisition.

    And if it can buy AIR TIME, it can indoctrinate all those not trained to resist indoctrination. Just as the Military Dictatorship in the US claims that Al Qaeda are “trained to resist interrogation techniques”, there are those in the electorate that don’t believe the hype.

    But we are few in comparison to the sheep who see minimal news in between Paris Hilton, all of which is distorted / falsified to serve — the Right? the Left? Progressives? Libertarians? Greens? No. To serve the flow of capital from the have-less to the have-more. It’s the Black Hole effect.

    For my “money” (what a joke!) any means to frustrate that (albeit means that work for long periods only — another caveat) is a good idea.

  8. Your argument in favor of market forces ignores several fundamental facts. First, not every voter in this country has access to cable news or the internet, due to poverty and/or illiteracy. Talk radio is free to listen to, and years of Limbaugh, etc, will brainwash anyone. I have listened to this right wing radio for years out here in the wilds of Kentucky, and I think that is the intended audience. Secondly, in many of these tiny towns, talk radio is the ONLY source of political information, and what they broadcast is reinforced by the cable news networks the shrinking middle class is able to afford. Thirdly, market forces are irrelevant to corporate owners. They are supported by advertising dollars whether people listen or not, because the other goal, besides disseminating hate and lies to the illiterate and poor, is to destroy the medium as a source of any other information. In the urban world, right wing radio is considered an “echo chamber”; in the rural world, it is more like surround sound. Even the doctors would be blacklisted if the TV in the waiting room shows anything other than Fox. Fourthly, the years the GOP spent fighting funding for education (Reagan to present) have created a population in rural areas who are unable to think critically, and lack the knowledge to evaluate and discount the lies they hear on talk radio. Lastly, the success of the strategy is spawning a similar takeover of cable. Witness the elevation of hate huckster Glenn Beck on CNN. Keith Olbermann is not even listed on MSNBC’s TV home page, despite being the networks biggest evening draw. He’s reality based, as opposed the the pathetic Tucker Carlson’s torpid spin. Are Carlson’s abysmal ratings keeping him off the air? Evidence to support my assertions can be found in the study on talk radio done by the Center for American Progress and Free press.Link:
    http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2007/06/pdf/talk_radio.pdf
    I rest my case.

  9. … and a good case it is.

    I did not mean to argue that the market should determine the mix of ideologies that hit the air waves.

    I only advised that the liberals (et al.) must invest in better messaging because the market as currently constituted does favor conservative messaging.

    The Dems tried to change those rules and failed. Now they have to do a better job than conservatives under the market rules as they exist.

  10. This is what I love about America. Your concept of investing in ideas. Who else came up with The end of history, or The McDonalds Theory of Conflict Resolution?

    The stereotypes don’t end just with “conservative” radio; how about neo-liberal college campuses?

    The “market” approach is still the best one. If you think your idea is important then invest in it and put it to the test. If people like it they will return the investment. If they don’t … sucks to be you 😉

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