LIBERAL AUTHORITARIANS TARGET FREE SPEECH
By Wes Vernon*
Former Nixon official turned liberal John W. Dean has written a book, Conservatives Without Conscience, claiming that conservatives have an “authoritarian” streak and insinuating that the Bush Administration comes close to being fascist in character. The fact that Dean could get publicity for such a wild charge proves that freedom of speech is alive and well in America. In fact, the real authoritarian threat comes from Dean’s liberal allies who want to use the federal government to silence conservative media voices.
Under the cover of “media reform,” these groups, led by the George Soros-funded Free Press, want to use the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to tell conservative media personalities how they should examine and debate public policy issues and how much air time they should be required to turn over to liberals.
One of their initiatives, the “Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act,” is designed to rectify “an imbalance in the presentation of opposing viewpoints over the public airwaves” and revoke a station’s license “if the station fails to uphold its obligation to the public interest,” as defined by the liberals. The bill, introduced by liberal Rep. Louise Slaughter, has 12 co-sponsors, which is not a large number.
But if the liberals seize control of Congress in November, such a measure could suddenly rise to the forefront of legislative measures being considered on Capitol Hill.
In a Democrat-controlled Congress, Slaughter would chair the all-powerful House Rules Committee, the “traffic cop” that decides which legislation makes it to the House floor and the rules of the debate.
The point bears repeating: if Congress changes hands as a result of the 2006 elections, you could wake up one morning in 2007 and find that your right to listen to an alternative to the mainstream media’s steady drumbeat of liberal propaganda is threatened by a commissar-like government diktat.
Commentators such as John W. Dean, who claim to be concerned about the rise of “authoritarianism,” ignore this obvious threat to the First Amendment, which was envisioned by the Founding Fathers as the freedom to speak one’s mind on political issues of the day.
It’s clear that Dean and the liberals are upset because the American people are hearing alternative voices in the “new media,” including cable news, talk radio and the Internet. The liberals think these voices are partly responsible for their electoral reverses in recent years, and that passing a new version of the federal “Fairness Doctrine,” requiring balance in programming, could help their cause.
In reality, the left wants to return to the days when the gatekeepers of the one-sided biased “mainstream media” could ignore or disparage conservative views.
The ultimate basis for government action lies in a 1943 Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Felix Frankfurter, which found that “the composition of traffic” on the public airwaves could be regulated. Liberals in and out of government decided they could use this power against conservatives.
Nationally, of course, the liberals were already in charge. The Big Three broadcast networks took their cue from the New York Times, which was read by the writers, reporters, anchors, and the higher-ups. The big three held “story meetings” early in the day to decide what would be on the evening news and what will be left out.
Conservatives had a national media voice only through radio and because of this they were targeted. John T. Flynn in While You Slept (1951) reported that the radicals of that day boasted they would force national conservative commentators such as Boake Carter, Upton Close, Henry J. Taylor, and Fulton Lewis, Jr. off the air.
Carter solved their problem by dying. Henry J. Taylor and Upton Close disappeared, though Taylor reappeared briefly later on. Fulton Lewis survived only by inventing a format that encouraged local sponsorship. Robert F. Hurleigh moved from CBS-owned WBBM in Chicago to the Mutual network, where he adopted Lewis’s format.
It is interesting to note that Senator Jesse Helms, who would later wage a campaign to “become Dan Rather’s boss” by encouraging conservatives to buy stock in CBS, started out as a local radio commentator in North Carolina.
But the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” had a chilling effect on these local broadcasters. If they wanted to take a conservative editorial position on a hot topic, they were discouraged. Government-enforced “fairness” decreed that air time devoted to one point of view had to be matched by “equal time” for the opposing position.
It sounded reasonable. Any programmer could theoretically put a conservative on the air for three hours. But the station would then be pressured to put on a liberal talk-show host for another three hours, even if that liberal host could not attract advertisers. If the station manager couldn’t afford to run three hours commercial-free, he was told, in effect, “Too bad. Put a liberal on the air or you’re in violation of the Fairness Doctrine.” As a practical matter, station managers usually decided that conservative commentary wasn’t worth the hassle.
The Kennedy Administration pursued this approach. Kennedy Assistant Commerce Secretary Bill Ruder was quoted as saying, “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.” That strategy was recommended by longtime United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.
Liberal Talk Radio?
The Fairness Doctrine effectively met its demise at the hands of President Ronald Reagan. Once again, the Gipper?derided by one establishment liberal as “an amiable dunce”?knew how to let the left-wingers keep underestimating him as he handed their heads to them.
A federal court had ruled in 1986 that the Fairness Doctrine lacked the force of law. So Congress passed a law giving the doctrine some teeth. President Reagan vetoed the law, anticipating that getting the government out of the media business would open up more alternatives. Congress did not override the veto, the FCC junked the policy altogether, and a media revolution was underway.
Since then, Americans starved for a multiplicity of voices have found refuge in federally licensed over-the-air broadcasts, and also through new outlets with content legally beyond the reach of the FCC?i.e., cable TV, cable radio (which regularly broadcasts George Putnam), satellite radio, and the Internet. Slowly?but steadily?the old-line media are losing their clout with the public, with fewer listeners, viewers and subscribers. Nonetheless, they remain dominant. The leftists are not satisfied with that. They want total control, apparently believing that given free and open discussion, their view will not resonate with the public.
Liberals, like conservatives, are free to promote their views. The reason, however, that liberal talk shows such as those on Air America cannot attract a significant number of listeners or advertisers is that the public has had its fill of the liberal line handed down on high from NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, National Public Radio (NPR), PBS television, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek, and the formerly conservative U.S. News and World Report.
Liberals know that there are far more conservatives than liberals in American society, and that the conservative viewpoint is increasingly popular, as reflected in the rise of talk radio and Fox News. That is why liberals in and out of Congress are working to stifle conservative commentary on the air?not only by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, but also by using the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law to regulate and silence the media for “contributing” to one campaign or another.
Rep. Louise Slaughter’s “Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting” bill would bring back the Fairness Doctrine for over-the-air radio and television. But she has talked about applying its provisions to cable-TV as well.
She has bluntly stated?in an interview with commentator Bill Moyers?that the right of individuals simply to turn off a program they don’t like “is not good enough” and that politicians have to enforce “the responsibility” of broadcasters “to use our airwaves judiciously and responsibly and call them to account if they don’t.” That euphemistic language spells government censorship, regardless of how Rep. Slaughter tries to dress it up with high-sounding ideals.
Slaughter’s fellow New Yorker, Maurice Hinchey, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that decides such issues as how much money to give the FCC, has sponsored another pro-Fairness Doctrine bill that he calls the “Media Ownership Reform Act of 2005.” He has hosted a Capitol Hill showing of the leftist film, “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” which insists that Fox News is too conservative.
The Case Of Fox News
Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, which is certainly more friendly to conservatives than the other networks, has attracted far more viewers than its main rivals CNN and MSNBC, which hew to a more standard liberal establishment line. The leftist attacks on Fox continue despite Murdoch’s generous contributions to Democrats Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. Some media observers believe its alleged conservatism has been diluted in recent months, and we at AIM have noted its troubling approach to some Middle East stories after a Saudi prince bought into the company.
We would argue that Fox has been less conservative than merely pro-American, and that may be what really bothers the far-left critics of the network.
Slaughter and Hinchey are supported by former vice president Al Gore, who blames Democratic setbacks partly on the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine; John Kerry, who faults a “sub-media” that “all began incidentally when the Fairness Doctrine was repealed;” and Democratic Party chief Howard Dean, who says that in the absence of new legislation, a Democratic president could just “appoint different kinds of FCC commissioners.”
Several moneyed leftist groups want to revive broadcast censorship. Among these is former conservative David Brock’s group Media Matters for America. Another is the National Conference on Media Reform, sponsored by the Soros-funded Free Press, whose “media reform” seminars include such topics as “Challenging Your TV or Radio Station’s Broadcast License” and “How to submit your complaints to the FCC.” The not so subtle message was?Get those right-wingers off the air by demanding “equal time.”
Attack On Talk Radio
Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine is not the only threat to robust political debate in the media. A case pending in the courts in Washington State (as of this writing) threatens to silence radio-talk-show hosts who comment on election contests. At issue is a state-level mini-McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform” law.
Last year, two Seattle radio hosts, Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson spoke out on their shows against a hike of 9.5 cents a gallon in the state’s gas tax, noting that price increases of gas at the pump were already imposing a burden on consumers. They urged their listeners to support a ballot initiative repealing the onerous tax.
The big money was on the side of the proponents of the gas tax?Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and his CEO Steve Ballmer; the Boeing aircraft manufacturer; the Washington State Labor Council; and the Seattle Mariners. AP reported these powerful interests kicked in to a fund of over $2 million to keep the gas tax hike on the books. By contrast, advocates of repealing the tax chalked up a mere $225,000, mostly in small donations.
As the Wilber/Carlson advocacy began to catch on with the public, a consortium of tax-hungry local governments throughout the state went to court and persuaded a judge to rule that the talk-show hosts’ commentaries should be counted as “in-kind” contributions to the No New Gas Tax (NNGT) campaign. The court decided that the hosts and their station KVI-AM offered free political advertising to the gas-tax opponents.
Part of the rationale for the ruling?now on appeal to the state Supreme court?was that the hosts’ employer?Fisher Communications? “sent” NNGT a contribution merely by allowing Wilbur and Carlson to comment in favor of the repeal initiative (which subsequently failed by a narrow margin, thanks in no small part to the overwhelming power of the moneyed campaign by the pro-taxers). It did not matter that the KVI talkers had proponents of the tax hike appear on their program as guests, or that Fisher’s media properties included commentaries in favor of sticking Washington State consumers for more money at the pump.
Critical Court Case
Wilbur tells AIM that the station’s attorneys are prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme court if they lose on the state level. In a related development, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law group, has filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court and a counterclaim against those who brought the suit against Wilber and Carlson.
The Hudson Institute’s Brian C. Anderson?author of the book South Park Conservatives?says that if the appeal loses, “the days of political talk radio could be over, not only in Washington State, but everywhere.”
Even if Wilbur, Carlson and Fisher dodge the bullet in this case, we should not assume the left will simply give up its effort to use any device at its disposal to shut down conservative talk radio.
A change in control of Congress this fall can mean a stepped-up effort to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine” as a matter of law and blocking confirmation of FCC commissioners and judges who will protect freedom of speech on the airwaves for all media.
But the liberals don’t need to be in power or pass legislation to accomplish their ends.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, as we documented in our November A-2004 AIM Report, totalitarian-minded liberal groups successfully pressured Sinclair Broadcasting to drop plans to air a film criticizing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. They threatened FCC action against Sinclair.
*Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer & broadcast journalist.
IS RUPERT MURDOCH MOVING LEFT?
Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and rock star Bono were the featured stars at a recent semi-secret conference sponsored by News Corporation and its founder Rupert Murdoch, often labeled a “conservative” or “right-wing” media mogul. The nature of the event, held from July 31-August 3, confirms our suspicion that Murdoch may be moving left as the 2008 U.S. presidential election approaches, and that he may bring his “conservative” news properties with him.
Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell was another featured attraction, offering his thoughts on “Mind reading the Zeitgeist.” Wikipedia says Gladwell specializes in examining “the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences, particularly sociology and psychology.” So what should we expect from Murdoch?
A panel at his conference on “Islam and the West” was supposed to feature Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who is an advocate of the view that the notion of national sovereignty is old-fashioned and outmoded.
There were Republicans such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator John McCain at the event, but they are not identifiable conservatives. However, conservative former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was hired as a commentator by Fox News, was there, participating in a panel on “The Politics of Change,” moderated by Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, a Murdoch property. Gingrich recently made headlines by saying we are involved in a World War III against radical Islam.
Murdoch, of course, recently hosted a fundraiser for Senator Hillary Clinton, leading some of the suspicious minds on the left to conclude that Murdoch must think Hillary would be an easy target for defeat in 2008.
Murdoch And Clinton
Apparently feeling some heat for hosting the Hillary fundraiser, Murdoch told Charlie Rose on public television that he supports her as a Senator, not necessarily as a presidential candidate. He said he would support Senator John McCain over Senator Clinton for president, if they are the two nominees. That should not reassure conservatives, however, because McCain is not that conservative. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is only 83 percent. In 2004 he scored only 72. His McCain-Feingold campaign finance law has been widely attacked as an infringement of the right to free speech.
Whatever his ultimate political preferences, Murdoch is doing something right, and we are in far better shape with a Fox News Channel than without it. The leftist British Guardian has just published a major attack on Murdoch, labeling him pro-American, pro-Israeli, and pro-military and complaining about his close relationship with Tony Blair.
Blair, to his credit, has complained about the Guardian’s fellow travelers at the BBC, having told Murdoch that he had listened to the BBC’s world service coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans only to discover “it was just full of hate of America and gloating about our troubles,” to quote Murdoch.
Murdoch recounted this conversation during his participation on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative conference last year, saying that “I think we’ve got to do a better job at answering it.” He can start by dropping plans by his British satellite affiliate BSkyB to air Al-Jazeera International. That will be a test of his intentions.
What You Can Do