The Fanatical Fear Of The Fairness Doctrine

Let’s face it – Change is scary. America now has a new President-elect swept to victory on a wave of change. Those on the winning side are anxious to implement a new agenda, but are also wary of the movement being diluted by political cowardice. The losers, however, are struggling to retain their composure as they imagine all variety of horror that awaits.

Speaking of losers, the most notorious amongst them are pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, etc. Their losses are not confined to being on the wrong side of public opinion in the recently concluded election. They are also losing listeners and viewers who are rapidly awakening to the dishonesty and hostility wafting through the conservative media’s airwaves. Fox News, once a runaway leader in cable news networks, is now threatened by upstart MSNBC, who has emerged as a surging second place competitor, and even beats Fox with some frequency. Radio’s problems are much deeper, facing stiffer competition from television and new media.

The response to this changing marketplace, however, is not to retool the product and search for new ways to connect with an audience. The tunnel vision of right-wingers like those at Fox is inhibiting self-awareness and ironically gaining fans amongst liberals who are happy to see them shrinking their own audience. Harold Meyerson at the Washington Post observes what he calls “the Palinization” of the Republican Party:

“During the campaign just completed, you guys focused on Barack Obama’s allegedly Muslim and alien roots and socialist ideology; meanwhile, in the real world, unemployment rose, foreclosures soared and Wall Street went flooey […] And the way your flock sees it, the modifications that Republicans need to make to become competitive again in American politics — acknowledging a need for state intervention to make the economy work, backing off the primitive religiosity, embracing a more tolerant pluralism — amount to nothing less than heresy.”

In a feat of denial, though, the conservative punditry is barreling headlong into a campaign of fear-mongering and frightful tales of censorship. They believe, and hope to persuade others, that Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress are surreptitiously plotting to reinstate the dreaded Fairness Doctrine that their hero, Ronald Reagan, vanquished 20 years ago. Should that happen, they say, their little ideological monopoly of the air will come crashing down. The main problem with their scare tactic is that there is neither substance nor truth in it.

Stephanie Mencimer has nicely summarized the situation for Mother Jones Magazine:

“In 2005, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to bring back the doctrine. Conservatives dubbed the measure the “Hush Rush” bill. Then last year, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said publicly that he thought the Fairness Doctrine should be revived, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), after noting that talk radio was overwhelmingly conservative, suggested that Congress hold hearings on the political imbalance […] But Hinchey’s bill went nowhere, Feinstein never held hearings, and the issue died down after President Bush in March threatened to veto any attempt to revive the Fairness Doctrine.”

What’s more, Obama has explicitly stated his opposition to the Doctrine on multiple occasions. That hasn’t stopped rightist enterprises like the National Review, the Center for Individual Freedom, and WorldNetDaily from spreading fabricated stories about conservative voices being kicked off the air. The prospect of this happening is not only false, but pointless. As Mencimer notes, the territory allegedly being fought over has been declining in value for years:

“Conservative talk-radio hosts love to position themselves as the victims of liberal media conspiracies, and the Fairness Doctrine gambit certainly fits the bill. But there is little substance behind the overheated rhetoric. Most Democrats have little interest in a big legislative fight over government regulation of the ever-shrinking sphere of broadcast media.”

And Obama recognizes this himself:

“He 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.”

Obama’s position correctly describes the field of battle as encompassing issues of corporate consolidation, diversity, independence, and open access to new media. Let conservatives whine about imaginary assaults on their dying medium. They can have it. And if they want to shiver in the shadows, pretending that rabid liberals are coming after them, that’s their prerogative.

Like I said above – Change is scary. But it is also necessary. The media world is changing whether we like it or not (we like it). If effective media reform is implemented, the problems facing progressives (and conservatives for that matter) will work themselves out. If ownership caps are enforced, more diverse voices will have access to the airwaves. If anti-trust law is enforced, more independence will be exercised by commercial media. Support for network neutrality and public broadcasting will provide opportunities for alternative media.

That’s what reform is about. That’s what change is about. It’s only scary if your melded to outmoded technology and institutions that profit from corporate domination and propaganda minded government agencies.