GOP preps for talk radio confrontation
By Alexander Bolton
House Republican lawmakers are preparing to fight anticipated Democratic efforts to regulate talk radio by reviving rules requiring stations to balance conservative hosts such as Rush Limbaugh with liberals such as Al Franken.
Conservatives fear that forcing stations to make equal time for liberal talk radio would cut into profits so drastically that radio executives would opt to scale back on conservative radio programming to avoid escalating costs and interference from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
They say radio stations would take a financial hit if forced to air balanced programming because liberal talk radio has not proved itself to be as profitable as conservative radio. Air America, the liberal counterpunch to conservative talk radio, filed for bankruptcy in October.
But Democratic leaders say that government has a compelling interest to ensure that listeners are properly informed.
“It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “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.”
The Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC discarded in 1985, required broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on controversial political issues. Prior to 1985, government regulations called for broadcasters to “make reasonable judgments in good faith” on how to present multiple viewpoints on controversial issues.
Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she planned to “look at the legal and constitutional aspects of” reviving the Fairness Doctrine.
“I believe very strongly that the airwaves are public and people use these airwaves for profit,” she said. “But there is a responsibility to see that both sides and not just one side of the big public questions of debate of the day are aired and are aired with some modicum of fairness.”
Feinstein said she is not yet ready to submit a formal proposal.
Democrats on the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee have also begun to focus on what they regard as a lack of diversity in talk radio, and may hold hearings later this year.
To halt the growing momentum in Congress to balance conservative radio programming, House lawmakers are preparing to introduce legislation this week that would codify the FCC’s 1985 decision to abandon the Fairness Doctrine.
Rep. Mike Pence (R), who worked as a syndicated talk radio host in Indiana before winning election to the House, is the main sponsor of the legislation. He is working with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a radio station owner, on the bill.
“A liberal think tank recently condemned what they called a massive imbalance on the airwaves,” said Pence. “I think a case is being made for government control of the use of the airwaves. The legislation we’re preparing is aimed at preventing that
The House Republican leadership and officials at the White House have reviewed the draft legislation.
If passed, the bill would require Congress to change the law before the FCC could mandate that television and radio hosts present conservative and liberal programming side by side. But the chances of passage are slim, given Democratic control of the Senate and House.
Still, Pence said the legislation could draw enough public attention to the issue to make it difficult for a future Democratic president or the Democratic-controlled Congress to pressure the FCC to increase regulation of radio content.
Conservatives have grown more apprehensive about a change to FCC policy under a Democratic administration in the wake of recent reports that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the Democratic presidential primary front-runner, would support rules requiring more political balance on talk radio.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told a Los Angeles radio host last week that he had once overheard Clinton and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on a Capitol elevator complain about the prevalence of “right-wing extremists” on talk radio. He said that Clinton and Boxer discussed their desire for a “legislative fix.”
Clinton and Boxer have denied the conversation ever took place.
But Inhofe believes that Bill and Hillary Clinton and their allies are setting the stage for greater government regulation of conservative talk radio.
“This is the Clinton White House,” said Inhofe. “They are trying to regulate the content of talk radio from the ownership perspective, hoping to circumvent freedom of speech arguments.”
Inhofe cited a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank headed by John Podesta, who served as Clinton’s White House chief of staff. A June 20 report by the think tank described a “massive imbalance” on the radio airwaves.
The report suggested several steps to “encourage more responsive and balanced radio programming” and “diversify radio station ownership to better meet local and community needs.”
It recommended restoring ownership caps on radio stations; “greater accountability” over radio licensing; and that commercial owners who fail to abide by “public interest obligations” pay to support public broadcasting.
Pence hopes to rally colleagues around the issue with a speech that he plans to deliver on the House floor today.
“Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has emerged as a dynamic forum for public debate and an asset to the nation,” Pence wrote in his prepared remarks. “Unfortunately, in the name of fairness, there has been much talk in recent days about the need to level the playing field of radio broadcasting by restoring the Fairness Doctrine.
“Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves,” he wrote.