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Air Wars Break Out Over Fairness Doctrine

With a talk lineup that includes Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, WMAL(AM) Washington was among the column of conservative talk-radio stations that helped last month to dash President Bush’s dreams of signing an immigration-reform bill. Now the station is joining the fight over an issue that speaks directly to its proud tagline: “Free speech heard here.”

Fresh off its successful campaign against the immigration bill, talk radio has taken aim at the fairness doctrine. A defunct FCC regulation that required broadcast licensees to present issues of public importance in a balanced manner, the fairness doctrine has long been the province of communications-law texts and history books. But in recent weeks, conservative talkers have seized upon—and amplified—a burgeoning legislative debate over reinstating the doctrine, making it a hot topic on radio and major television news programs.

Indeed, the FCC’s decision to scrap the doctrine in 1987 is widely credited with sparking the rise of conservative talk radio. But Republicans like Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) argue that the predominance of right-leaning radio is a simple case of economics. “It’s not my fault Air America went bankrupt,” he told his House colleagues two weeks ago. (Walden is also a broadcaster whose radio stations carry Limbaugh, Hannity and Michael Reagan, whose father, President Ronald Reagan, vetoed the doctrine when Congress tried to legislate it.)

Within the past two weeks, three prominent Democratic senators, including John Kerry (Mass.), have called for either reinstating the doctrine or at least looking into doing so. Kerry ran head-on into the issue in 2004, when he was a presidential candidate and Sinclair stations were preparing to air a documentary that was critical of his Vietnam service.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) joined Kerry’s call for reinstatement while Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was looking into it.

Soon after, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former talk-radio host, introduced a bill to deny the FCC the “resources or authority” to reinstate the fairness doctrine in fiscal 2008. Democrats, led by Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), suggested that the amendment was a red herring meant to provide sound bites for “yap yap TV” and conservative talkers who had ginned up the issue. Clearly in a Shakespearean mood, Obey dismissed the amendment as “much ado about nothing” and “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Some Republicans—notably Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.)—seemed to suggest that this new talk-radio fixation amounted to uninformed mischief-making. (When pressed by Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace, Lott backed off criticism of conservative talkers and put the blame on politicians for not making the issue clearer to constituents.)

But most Republicans joined in the rabble-rousing, denouncing the policy as everything from the “unfairness doctrine” to the “leftist censorship doctrine” and dismissing Obey’s and other Democrats’ assurances that they had no intention of pushing for reinstatement.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) called such an effort to compel speech a “hallmark of a totalitarian regime” and claimed that the difference between Limbaugh and CBS anchor Katie Couric was that Limbaugh admitted he is a conservative while Couric doesn’t admit she is liberal.

Pence’s amendment notwithstanding, some broadcasters are concerned that the doctrine could return if the White House goes to a Democrat next year. “I think it is a very real threat,” says one veteran TV-network executive. “There are a lot of members on both sides of the aisle who are very upset about the role talk radio played in the demise of the [immigration] bill.”

After helping get the fairness doctrine overturned, the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) fought for more than a decade to scuttle two surviving corollaries, which required broadcasters to provide response time to personal attacks or their stations’ editorials. (They were repealed in 2000.)

“RTNDA welcomed the demise of the fairness doctrine,” says association President Barbara Cochran. “We certainly think it would be misguided to try to bring it back at this point.”

Some of the House Democrats who downplayed talk of reinstatement reasoned that the Bush Administration, like Reagan’s before it, simply wouldn’t let it happen. But Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has called for the doctrine’s return and intends to address the issue in his oversight committee’s expected hearings on media ownership, has said that the scenario could change after the next election. (Kucinich himself is a presidential candidate.)

And that possibility hasn’t escaped Republicans. Just as Congress was heading out the door for its July 4 recess, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential contender, introduced a doctrine-blocking bill similar to Pence’s amendment. Says Pence, “It is exactly that next administration that we are concerned about.”