Relax, Rush: the Fairness Doctrine will not rise again

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Rumors fly on talk-radio stations that the new Democratic president and Congress will try to rein them in by reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

That's an old rule that President Ronald Reagan abolished, which had required holders of broadcast licenses to provide balanced coverage and opposing views. Once that disappeared, America's right wing flocked to AM radio, where it now dominates the talk shows.

That bunches up the shorts of a lot of liberals, but shouldn't. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949, when there were nowhere near the number of voices current in our media-drenched world.

The Fairness Doctrine is not going to be reinstated, nor should it. Never mind that a restraint on free speech would be a betrayal of core liberal principles. It won't happen because President-elect Barack Obama has no interest in it, few Democrats in Congress care about it, and they all can read a map.

If last week's presidential map showed anything, it was that a medium where America's conservative white guys talk mostly to each other is just the kind of insular world that can help a party lose by 7 million votes.

If Republicans want to win in 2012, they need a new strategy, a broader and more inclusive vision. Is talk radio the forum to provide that?

I readily concede that I have consumed the medium more in sips than swallows, but I've nonetheless heard plenty of wild-goose chasing. The vividly imagined threat of the Fairness Doctrine, popularly known as a "Hush Rush" law, is the crisis du jour. That reference, of course, is to Rush Limbaugh, the talk-show colossus who many credit with saving AM radio.

The inherent self-congratulation -- "we're so fearsome Congress may soon move to stop us!" -- is obvious but doesn't stand up to mild scrutiny.

First, the Obama campaign stated this past summer that he "does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters." He's smart enough to know that any move to restrain the vocal opposition is not only unnecessary but could backfire. His victory Tuesday gives him no reason to change his mind.

Second, the Democrat lately offered as Exhibit A in the plot to revive the Fairness Doctrine, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, betrays no interest in pursuing the cause.

Late last month, Mr. Bingaman told a conservative radio host on KKOB in Albuquerque, N.M., that "I would want this station and all stations to have to present a balanced perspective and different points of view." He went on to suggest that the country was well-served under the Fairness Doctrine.

But when I called his Washington office last week, spokesperson Jude McCartin said, "He's not going to waste his time doing something that's not doable."

Noting the new president does not support reinstating the doctrine, Ms. McCartin said, "I don't think there's anybody pushing it."

Mr. Bingaman chairs the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and has more important work on his mind. Or maybe he just checked his home state's returns. That Albuquerque radio station has the statewide reach to blast Democrats, but President-elect Obama took 57 percent of New Mexico's vote. He benefitted from a surge in Hispanic voters, and Democrat Tom Udall picked up the state's other Senate seat, beating the Republican by 20 points.

Parties often overreach after gaining power, and Democrats are capable of dumb moves, but there's no clamor about reining in talk radio anywhere but on talk radio.

Not that that will necessarily hush the "Hush Rush" jabber. The medium's guiding rule is not proving that something likely will happen, it's playing with scenarios to force someone else to prove otherwise.

That petri dish may produce ideological purity but does little to broaden a party's base. Had Sen. Obama nothing but the lefty readers of The Nation or viewers of "The Daily Show," he'd have been slaughtered.

That said, partisan vitriol can be great fun. Conservative talk-show hosts and longtime callers must be drooling at the possibilities of the next four years. Their old show -- "President Good!" -- had gone stale. The new show -- "President Bad!" -- will at least be fresh.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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