This is an edited transcript of my podcast from November 5th with Brian Anderson author of A Manifesto for Media Freedom
Don Irvine: Welcome to another issue of the Media Monitor podcast. My guest today is Brian C. Anderson, author of A Manifesto for Media Freedom. Brian, why a manifesto?
Brian: Well, I think it’s necessary, Don. I regret to say it, but as we document in this book, there’s a coming regulatory push—we’re already seeing signs of it—to clamp down on forms of political speech, in particular talk radio, but resuscitating a now defunct regulatory measure called the Fairness Doctrine, and a whole host of regulatory measures that are being cooked up by the Democratic Party.
Don: Let’s talk about the Fairness Doctrine, since you mention it. With Obama getting elected yesterday, there will be, or seems to be—at least in Congress—a push for that. Nancy Pelosi has said there should be a push for the Fairness Doctrine, and yet in the campaign, Obama said that he doesn’t support re-opposing it. Which way do you think this is likely to go?
Brian: For your listeners who might not be aware of what the Fairness Doctrine is, it’s an old federal communications commission regulation, dating back in various forms to the birth of radio, but it was officially codified in the late 1940s and it required broadcasters to basically provide equal time, or roughly equal time to various viewpoints, whenever opinions would be uttered on air. It covered radio and later broadcast television until Ronald Reagan’s FCC got rid of it in 1987. This basically set up the government as the arbiter of what could be heard or watched when it came to political opinion on the airwaves.
Lack of compliance meant potential fines, even loss of license for some stations. Now the Democrats want to bring this back because the one medium that conservatives and libertarians have done will in is talk radio and it’s become a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party. They would like to cut down on the influence of Conservatives on the airwaves. Obama did say that he wasn’t in favor of this measure, but as you noted, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Al Gore, and yesterday, Chuck Schumer, have all said that they think bringing it back is a good idea. It’s hard to imagine Obama vetoing a measure that a Democratic Congress gave him that restored the Fairness Doctrine.
When you look at what he [Obama] is proposing, when it comes to media regulations, they’re just as onerous when it comes to political speech. It would be a kind of Fairness Doctrine by subterfuge. One thing the campaign has said it wants to push for is to reduce the licensing period of radio stations from eight years to two years and to enforce local accountability measures by setting up community organized boards that would get involved in the licensing process. So, stations would basically be looking over their shoulders at these community panels which would very quickly be dominated by political activists. These panels would make demands for sufficient local content, whatever that means—nobody knows, but it would make syndicating radio shows much more difficult. Many conservative shows are heard in markets across the country. It would be a hassle in general for a lot of these radio stations. What many will choose to do is to push away from anything controversial on the airwaves and change formats—maybe cover entertainment coverage or sports—anything but politics.
Don: It’s a little bit like how it used to be before talk radio really took off is that the radio waves for what was on talk radio, comprised of these other types of shows—it really wasn’t about politics.
Brian: That’s exactly right, and we have a succinct chapter in A Manifesto for Media Freedom looking at the history of the Fairness Doctrine and what radio was like in the Fairness Doctrine era. It was very anodyne and boring in many instances. Certainly there was a lot less political talk. Back in 1980, when the Fairness Doctrine still applied, there were about 100 radio shows devoted to talk format nationwide. Just 100. After the Reagan Administration got rid of it in 1987, within a decade you had thousands of talk radio shows across the country. As I mentioned earlier, conservatives, for a variety or reasons, have done very well in the medium. It’s become a kind of seismic political influence in the national debate.
Don: Now you mentioned the FCC basically put the old rules out of existence. Now that Obama will be the President, he really doesn’t need Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or those people to do anything legislatively, just by getting the top appointment for the FCC. Could they not act and bring that back?
Brian: That’s exactly right. So, you could conceivably achieve this simply by changing the composition of the Federal Communications Commission which has extraordinary powers. Those powers grew under the Bush administration, so absolutely. If we’re looking at that scenario, the only agency that might come to the rescue would be the courts. It’s an open question on how they would decide on a free speech challenge to a new Fairness Doctrine or something similar. The last time the Supreme Court weighed in on this power of the FCC was back in 1969 in a famous case called Red Lion. In that case, the court found in favor of the Fairness Doctrine, but it did hold open the possibility that it might revisit the question should conditions of scarcity change. As we argue in the book there is no possible was you can say these days that there is any scarcity of opinion on the airwaves or anywhere else. You really do have what we call a media cornucopia, which provides more sources of information, argument, and analysis that Americans have ever had at their disposal.
Don: Now what about some of the other things along these line, in terms of media cross ownership? What’s going on with that?
Brian: There’s going to be a push, I think, to break up some media entities. A lot of this is aimed at Rupert Murdoch and cross ownership of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and various other things like that. I do expect the Democrats to be pushing in that direction. Now, as we show in the book, this threat of media consolidation that you often hear Al Gore thundering about and other leading Democrats, is pretty much a myth. Not even including all of the new media outlets which have gained extraordinary influence in recent years on the Internet. There really hasn’t been much media consolidation going on. We’re about where we were in terms of ownership 15 or 20 years ago. It’s about the same and the movement in recent months has been for some of the bigger media entities to spin off some of their subsidiaries and open up other channels of profit.
Don: You mention the Internet. How does any of this affect that? Will the Fairness Doctrine or any of these regulations try to regulate speech on the Internet?
Brian: Well, Don, it’s hard to imagine the feasibility of it, but if you look at what the Democrats have been saying, and some Republicans too, we’re quite concerned about this. The Obama campaign and almost all leading Democrats are very strong advocates for something called Network Neutrality. This is a very arcane debate, but what it boils down to is an enforced network neutrality measure that would set up the FCC as a much bigger power regulating the Internet. Now, this network neutrality gives the FCC the power to force Internet providers, the people who are laying down the broadband cable and providing your Internet service, to treat equally all the kinds of traffic that move through their various conduits, whether that’s fiber optic cable, phone lines, wireless connections, whatever. So the provider would not be allowed to slow down traffic or speed things up. What a lot of these providers want to do is slow down the bandwidth hog who’s downloading gigantic movie files and clogging things up, so that they can continue to provide fast service for email or faster service.
The Democrats say this will not apply to the content of what is on the Internet, but we’re quite worried and we lay the case in the book, that this will be a slippery slope towards establishing a kind of Fairness Doctrine for the Internet. One of the FCC commissioners, Robert McDowell, a couple of weeks ago warned that this is exactly what could wind up happening. Once you establish the FCC as combating digital discrimination, you’re really going to be looking at are opinions being treated fairly on the Web? When you look at who’s advising the Democrats on this issue, one of the top guys is a law professor named Cass Sumstein, a very, very smart man, a potential Supreme Court nominee, but he is in favor of setting up some kind of Fairness Doctrine for opinion sites on the web, so that if the NRA was publishing editorials on gun issues, they would have to run what Sumstein describes as an electronic sidebar with gun control opinion on the other side. Now again, this seems wildly hostile to the First Amendment, but it’s never clear these days how political speech is going to be treated by the courts. It has not been protected to the degree our Founding Fathers would have supported in recent years. In fact, there’s more protection extended to things like virtual kiddie porn online than there is to political speech.
Don: Now, it seems like that’s a lot of things you covered in that chapter on Network Socialism. Socialism is getting revived in the lexicon.
Brian: Well, again, you’ve wet up the government as the overseer of the Internet and you start telling Internet network providers, who have built these network connections with their own vast amounts of money, investing billions, that they can’t use them as they see fit, that they have to use them in accordance with government regulations. This is a form of Network Socialism, as we described it. It turns the Internet into a kind of giant public comment as mandated by the government.
Don: you also have a chapter called Neophobia. Do you want to describe that for me?
Brian: This isn’t as serious an issue as political speech, but we look at the kind of regulatory impulse coming out of Washington to really start monitoring all of these various new forms of media that have emerged even more recently, such as social networking and the video game industry. Most of this we view as wildly overstated and unnecessary. By empowering Washington, you really do create a situation that Chuck Schumer made the point, quite explicitly yesterday, where the Washington regulator believes he can regulate everything when it comes to speech in this country. Schumer made this link explicitly yesterday when he said, well if you’re going to regulate porn on the Internet and elsewhere, why shouldn’t we also be able to regulate political speech?
Don: Now with this election taken place and things beginning to settle down—we’re getting more results in on some of the races, but the Democrats are firmly in control of the government now—how do you think the public is going to react if these measures are put into place? Is that something that they knew about beforehand?
Brian: One of the reasons we wrote this Manifesto for Media Freedom—it’s a short and concise book, written in the clearest possible language—is to tell Americans what’s going on at these arcane, labyrinth bureaucracies in Washington and how decisions being made there—regulatory decisions—are going to effect their daily live and effect some of the freedoms that they enjoy. I’d like to think the public would be outraged at these kind of initiatives. Certainly talk radio will fight back if it’s going to be regulated but if you look at polling data, the Rasmussen Group polled over the summer and found that with liberal voters, there was an overwhelming support for a new Fairness Doctrine. I think it was 54% to 26% in favor. Just taken nationally among all voters, the Fairness Doctrine had a 47% plurality in support with only 39% opposed. When you start talking about fairness and similar terms, people find it seductive. They don’t really understand this would obliterate talk radio . Something to get your listeners to understand, the economics of this will force talk radio off the air because liberals have not been able to find an audience or sponsorship in the broadcast medium, especially on radio. So, if a station is in a position of not only dealing with government lawyers looking at how much time has been devoted to this subject or that; that establishes a real problem for them, a real hassle. But if they also have to run a liberal show that may not have any listeners to justify a conservative one that does have listenership, they’re going to look at it and say it’s not really as profitable as it once was for us and why don’t we search for another format. I think the end result of these new regulatory measures is that there will be a lot less political talk on the airwaves and certainly diminished conservative presence. The Left gets a “two-fer” in this sense. Once of the key ways Conservative authors get their books out there to potential readership is by appearing on talk radio shows and talking about the ideas in their books. If that’s gone, you’re going to leave, empowered, the traditional old-line media, like the newspapers, which tend to be liberal in most cities. They don’t treat Conservative books very well, so publishers are going to be less inclined to publish them.
Don: they haven’t been able to put a lid on them, thanks to talk radio and other sources but this would allow them…
Brian: Talk radio. . . In writing this book, I talked to many publishing people who work for conservative imprints. They say without it, it’s hard to imagine we could find readership for these books. It’s the number one way to sell.
Don: So it doesn’t look like a great future for Conservatives if these things get into place.
Brian: I think there really needs to be a big fight about this. What I predict will happen, though, is that there will be a lot of debate about the Fairness Doctrine itself and a lot of push back on that, but beneath the surface you’re going to see these other less explosive regulatory measures put in place, such as local content, and public obligations of broadcasters that the Obama people have been talking about, which again would amount to a Fairness Doctrine by subterfuge.
Don: Do you think [Rep. Mike] Pence with his Broadcaster Freedom Act will have success in getting people to join him to talk about it?
Brian: Well, he’s been great on this issue—a very keen understanding of the importance of maintaining a free media—but he wasn’t able to really muster much support for it in Congress. He’s been trying to pass a bill that would prevent the FCC from re-imposing a Fairness Doctrine. The Democrats have prevented that from even being voted on. Now, with more Democratic control in D.C., he’ll have an even tougher time. I do predict we’ll have a vigorous national debate about this.
Don: At least that’s somewhat encouraging.
Brian: Pence and several other legislators really understand this issue and see what the Democrats have been up to. It is all about diminishing the Conservative presence on the airwaves. To emphasize the point, it’s the one medium that Conservatives actually have dominance in. They do pretty well on the Internet, but it’s interesting that these are the two forms of media that the Democrats want to regulate most energetically. What does this leave empowered? The traditional print media which is dominated by the Left. It leaves empowered Hollywood which tilts to the Left. Also, the Universities. All of them entities or areas where free speech is still protected; all tend to be on the Left. I view this as a very cynical effort on the part of the Left to build up its power base and diminish the influence of Conservatives.
Don: Well, Brian, thank you for taking time to speak with me today. Your book is definitely a must read for Conservatives at the very least.
Brian: Well, it’s very short and very clear. We really did try to lay this out in as concise a way as possible. If your listeners want to educate themselves on this very important debate, we like to think we’ve done something to help on that front. Thank you very much.
Don: Where can our listeners go to find your book or learn more about what you do?
Brian: The book is available through Amazon.com and should be in most book stores. Also, your listeners might want to check out the website of the magazine I edit, www.city-journal.org, or just plug in City Journal and it will come up. The book is available there and also the writing of many of our wonderful, talented scholars such as Heather McDonald and Victor Davis Hansen. Your listeners might enjoy that.
Don: That’s great. To our listeners, please tune in again later this week for another issue of Media Monitor podcast.