Accuracy in Media

A blogger called the 309-115 vote against federal funding of the Fairness Doctrine a “historic vote for freedom of speech.” A columnist called it “A big victory for radio broadcast freedom.” But it was nothing of the sort. Even if the amendment from Rep. Mike Pence were to pass the Senate, it would do absolutely nothing to stop a Democratic president and Congress from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. It was a political maneuver that has confused many people.

The Pence amendment to the Financial Services Appropriations bill, as AIM points out in a new special report, accomplished nothing-except to allow several dozen liberals to claim they are not interested in re-imposing the Fairness Doctrine. 

Some stories about what happened were extremely misleading. TV Week reported that the House voted to “ban the Federal Communications Commission from reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to offer competing viewpoints in a balanced manner when presenting controversial issues.” But the “ban,” as Pence acknowledges, is only temporary. 

John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable magazine was accurate, noting that the Pence amendment “prevents the FCC from spending any money in 2008 to reinstate the fairness doctrine.” The key point is that it only affects 2008-fiscal-year dollars. 

Many Democrats voted for the Pence amendment because they know that the Bush Administration will not re-impose it-or that, if Congress passed it, Bush would veto it. In other words, there is no chance of it becoming law under Bush. Because the Pence amendment only applied to 2008 dollars, it enabled many liberals to posture as opponents of the Fairness Doctrine. 

While the debate may have raised public awareness, the vote may actually hurt the cause of freedom in broadcasting more than it helps. Many liberals will be able to run for re-election in 2008 claiming they voted against the Fairness Doctrine. But if a Democrat wins the presidency and the Democrats maintain control of Congress, these same liberals will simply let the FCC (with a Democratic majority) re-impose it, without a vote of Congress. This may be what is planned. 

Pence, a former radio talk-show host, and solid conservative, had the best of intentions. But he may have confused things by proposing an amendment, whose impact is temporary, and a bill, which would be permanent, at about the same time. Most of the attention was focused on the amendment, and the overwhelming vote in favor of it, which was perceived as a victory by many conservatives. However, Pence noted that his Broadcaster Freedom Act is what is really needed. It is a long-term solution that would prevent the FCC or any future president from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. This bill was announced with only 111 co-sponsors. 

The Pence amendment got over 300 votes but the Broadcasters Freedom Act has only 111 co-sponsors. Why the difference? Because the vote on the amendment was largely symbolic (except for raising public awareness). It’s the bill that is the critical piece of legislation. It’s doubtful that Pence will get more than a handful of Democrats to back it. And even if it passes the House, Senate Democrats can be counted on to block it.  

The bottom line is that, without a massive public outpouring in favor of the First Amendment, comparable to the opposition to the immigration bill, the Broadcaster Freedom Act will die. And that means that with a Democrat in the White House, the Fairness Doctrine, as well as limits on conservative ownership of media properties, will be passed into law.  

The Democrats are paving the way for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine by requesting a federal study of how “broadcast facilities licensed on behalf of the public by the Federal Communications Commission” have been used to “convey messages of bigotry or hatred, creating a climate of fear and inciting individuals to commit hate crimes.”

Reps. John D. Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, made the request in a letter to John M.R. Kneuer, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Will Kneuer, a Bush appointee, comply with the request? 

The obvious purpose of such a study is to produce “evidence” that could lead to laws, policies or regulations, such as the Fairness Doctrine, to silence broadcasters perceived or alleged to be behind “hate crimes.” Religious broadcasters who oppose liberal and promiscuous lifestyles would be a natural target. But Lou Dobbs of CNN came under attack by a monitor of “hate groups” from the Southern Poverty Law Center for his views and reporting on illegal immigration. This “monitor” was featured on a CBS “60 Minutes” show attacking Dobbs. And Hillary Clinton critic Don Imus was basically fired from his radio and TV jobs for what the liberals called “hate speech” against the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

The letter to Kneuer is the tip-off. This is how they intend to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. They are not going to offer the usual liberal talking points about conservative talk shows hosts being one-sided. The argument this time around is that talk radio is hateful and causing injury and death to people. In making this argument, they are taking a page from the Bill Clinton playbook. Then-President Clinton tried to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on conservative talk radio. 

On this basis, the liberal argument will be: how can anyone object to protecting people from “hate speech?” The liberal success in the Imus case shows the potent political impact of such a charge. It guarantees that the liberal media will not rally to the defense of freedom of speech by conservative broadcasters. The reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine will likely follow the Congress passing-and a Democratic president signing-a bill outlawing “hate crimes.” Bush has promised a veto of a “hate crimes” bill if it passes the U.S. Senate (it has already passed the House).      

Dingell himself has been quoted as saying that broadcasters should have no objection to reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. “Can you explain to me why a broadcaster ought not to have to be fair or would not be fair?” he said. He told a conference of three advertising groups on May 7, “If you are concerned about it, keep your eye on me, because I intend to address this one very soon.” Five weeks later he sent his letter to Kneuer. 

Dingell said that he objected to the Pence amendment because it was “an important communications policy issue that is properly addressed in the authorizing committee.” He added, “Even if the amendment were not procedurally defective, the amendment is entirely unnecessary. I understand from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman’s office that the FCC has no plans to even debate the issue, much less take action. In other words, there will be no action at the FCC on the Fairness Doctrine.”

What Dingell is suggesting is that while there is no chance of the Fairness Doctrine being resurrected under Bush, the situation will change under a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled FCC. He’s right. By then, Congress may have passed the “hate crimes” bill and Dingell may have his “study” of how broadcasters supposedly provoke hate crimes.

The plan to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine is completely on track.

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