Accuracy in Media

Talk radio’s suspicions of a movement to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine were confirmed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Tuesday June 24 during her comments at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. When John Gizzi, an editor for Human Events asked Speaker Pelosi whether she favored a return of the Fairness Doctrine, she told him an unhesitating “yes,” reports Gizzi.

Moreover, when Gizzi asked if she supports the Broadcaster Freedom Act, “She added that ‘the interest in my caucus is the reverse’ and that New York Democratic Rep. ‘Louise Slaughter has been active behind this [revival of the Fairness Doctrine] for a while now,’ he writes.

Representative Slaughter (D-NY) introduced the 2004 MEDIA Act to bring back the Fairness Doctrine and reintroduced it in 2005 as the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act.

Conservative critics have been very concerned that Congress had supported a one-year moratorium on the return of the Fairness Doctrine, but has not supported the Broadcaster Freedom Act (BFA), which would permanently prevent these regulations from returning.

Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.) introduced the BFA last June, where it is still awaiting a vote. As of June 25, 200 Members have signed a discharge petition which would force the House to make an up or down vote on the legislation, but an additional 18 signatures are needed. 

“And so far, not one single House Democrat has signed our petition for an up-or-down vote on broadcast freedom…and now we know why,” announced Pence in response to Pelosi’s comments. “I say to Speaker Pelosi with respect: Defending freedom is the paramount interest of every Member of the American Congress.”

In his Human Events article, Gizzi recounted his conversation with Pelosi:

“‘So I don’t see it [the Pence bill] coming to the floor,’ Pelosi said.

‘Do you personally support revival of the ‘Fairness Doctrine?,’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ the speaker replied, without hesitation.”

The Fairness Doctrine would force radio broadcasters to provide equal time for opposing points of view—essentially giving the government the ability to regulate media content.

107 Democrats and 3 Republicans voted for the one-year moratorium on the Fairness Doctrine but have not signed the discharge petition. This has prompted groups like Hypocrisy Caucus to launch grassroots efforts targeted at the wavering House members. AIM has published The Death of Talk Radio?, which details the history of the Fairness Doctrine and efforts to reinstate it.

Speaker Pelosi’s favorable view towards reinstating the Fairness Doctrine may explain House Democrats’ reluctance to support the discharge petition. Still, discussions of the issue remain charged.

“The public has already shown that they’re interested in this medium, that’s why it’s so popular. That’s why they want to shut it down. If we had no audience, they wouldn’t want to shut this down,” radio host Laura Ingraham told Accuracy in Media.

“Surely, we have evolved to the stage here in this century that we can understand some sort of balance, some sort of sense. To me it is a feeling that my country is spilling out hatred and lies on many, many of these stations to people who hear nothing but that, who never believe or hear any countervailing opinion,” Representative Slaughter told Bill Moyers in 2004 while promoting her MEDIA Act.

“I think this is one of the most dangerous things in the world, and it actually cuts out a point of view of half of America,” said Slaughter. “And anything that we own as Americans, as a government, like the radio and television waves, should not be used in that way.” .

Slaughter criticized Rush Limbaugh’s previous attempts to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. “I should point out to you that when we tried to reinstate [the fairness doctrine] again in ‘93, one of the reasons we couldn’t was that Rush Limbaugh had organized this massive uprising against it, calling it ‘The Hush Rush Law.’ Which again said that while Rush can speak and anybody that he wants to can speak on those stations, the rest of us can’t. But he aroused his listeners so that they contacted their members of Congress and killed the bill, and that’s not the first time we’ve seen that,” she said.

Not all media reform activists have expressed support for the Fairness Doctrine. Others, such as the left-wing Center for American Progress (CAP), prefer legislation targeted toward increasing diversity and media “localism,” as well as preventing media consolidation. Their stated reasoning: the unfair “structural bias” of talk radio toward conservatives. “91 percent of the political talk radio programming on the stations owned by the top five commercial station owners is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive,” write the study’s authors.

“Our conclusion is that the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio is the result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system, particularly the complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements for broadcasting, and the relaxation of ownership rules including the requirement of local participation in management,” write the authors (emphasis added).

An article by John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable says that Presidential candidate Barack Obama does not support a return of the Fairness Doctrine. It quotes Obama’s Press Secretary, Michael Ortiz as saying “[Obama] considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible…That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.”

What the article does not note is that Obama’s legislative agenda for media reform greatly mirrors that of CAP’s, which emphasizes localism and minority ownership as an antidote to the alleged conservative bias. As AIM has documented, recent pushes for public interest media regulation, media localism,  and other “media reforms” are presented as alternatives to the Fairness Doctrine—but may achieve similar ends. 

The mainstream media have remained virtually silent about Pelosi’s support for the Fairness Doctrine. A visit to the Christian Science Monitor web page, for example, finds no mention of her comments, harping instead on the pall of sexism supposedly surrounding Hillary Clinton’s nomination defeat.

“On the positive side, Senator Clinton has advanced the cause of women in government and her candidacy has been a positive contribution to the country and had a positive effect on the political process. I am a victim of sexism myself all the time, but I just think it goes with the territory…. I’m a full-steam-ahead person,” Pelosi told the CSM audience.

The only media outlets I found that mentioned Pelosi’s comments were Human Events, a Washington Times editorial, Cybercast News Service, Broadcasting and Cable, and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

But silence will not quell conservative talk radio’s fears of these regulations returning.  As AIM has documents in The Death of Talk Radio?, two of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioners favor the return of the Fairness Doctrine. For the doctrine to be reinstated, all that is needed is for a President to appoint a third sympathetic commissioner and the regulations could go back into effect without any vote at all.

By preventing a vote on the Broadcaster Freedom Act, Speaker Pelosi is helping to make that scenario a reality.

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