Robert Knight: Listen Up, While You Still Can
This column originally appeared in Human Events on February 19, 2009.
Bill Clinton says America needs the Fairness Doctrine because conservative talk radio is sounding “a blatant drumbeat” against the stimulus package. He complained on a liberal talk show on Feb. 12 that “there has always been a lot of big money to support the right-wing talk shows.”
Well, there’s big money because millions tune in to those shows. Sponsors support programs that people want.
Clinton’s call for government-enforced intrusion into the airwaves came days after similar remarks by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). The growing liberal affection for the idea of reining in talk radio should send a chill up any freedom lover’s back.
During the Cold War, people in the Eastern Bloc literally risked their lives to listen to Radio Free Europe. Even if local broadcasters had aired unfiltered news, the people had no freedom to listen and faced arrest. Freedom of speech without the freedom to listen is useless.
Most Americans take for granted the freedom to listen. Since 1987, when the Reagan Administration wisely did away with the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has boomed. In fact, talk radio’s success has put it in the bull’s-eye of liberals who want to send radio back to the days of Lawrence Welk and monopoly-controlled news.
Ever since conservative talk radio hosts helped kill the immigration bill in 2007, liberals have talked about the Fairness Doctrine. Its revival wouldn’t send government goons to people’s doors, but the freedom to listen would be crippled.
On January 7, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), along with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) re-introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act to prevent the FCC from imposing the Fairness Doctrine. The bill is supported by the Free Speech Alliance, a coalition with more than 30 groups, including the American Civil Rights Union and the Media Research Center.
On the surface, the Fairness Doctrine sounds like a good idea. Why not ensure that differing viewpoints are aired? This might have made sense at one time. But the Internet, cable TV, and the radio renaissance have given Americans literally thousands of choices. Besides, the federal taxpayer already subsidizes 860 National Public Radio stations, and there are three other noncommercial liberal networks V Pacifica Radio, American Public Media and Public Radio International, which collectively have 31 news/talk shows on the radio and Internet.
If the FCC forces stations to carry a response each time Rush Limbaugh offers an opinion, this would create unsponsored airtime. During the Fairness Doctrine era from 1949 to 1987, many stations skipped political talk. The Fairness Doctrine, which should be titled the Censorship Doctrine, would effectively end conservative radio discussion, leaving a liberal monopoly.
A 2008 report by the Culture and Media Institute, “Unmasking the Myths Behind the Fairness Doctrine,” provides striking evidence that liberals dominate all but talk radio:
* Broadcast TV news (liberal, 42.1 million daily viewers vs. 0 conservative)
* Top 25 newspapers (liberal 11.7 million circulation vs. 1.3 million conservative)
* Cable TV news (liberal 182.8 viewers per month vs. 61.6 million conservative)
* Major newsweeklies (liberal 8.5 million weekly circulation vs. 0 conservative)
Conservative talk radio has an estimated weekly audience of 87 million listeners vs. liberal programs reaching 24.5 million. The top 13 talk shows are all hosted by conservatives such as Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Only four liberal talk show hosts even crack the top 20: Ed Schultz (14) Alan Colmes (17), Thom Hartmann (18) and Lionel (20). Liberal radio network Air America is on life support.
Fox News Channel dominates cable TV news, with only CNN’s Larry King Live cracking the top five. But Fox News Channel’s top-rated The O’Reilly Factor has less than half the viewers (2.6 million) of the lowest-rated network news show, CBS Evening News, which averaged 6.1 million viewers in 2008.
Despite the overwhelming liberal media advantage, conservatives are not calling for a Fairness Doctrine for newspapers, or broadcast news or magazines. In fact, conservatives welcome liberals to the free-wheeling world of talk radio, but as competitors, not usurpers. It’s one thing to work hard to attract a market. It’s another to install unwanted voices at government gunpoint.
The Fairness Doctrine is not the only threat to talk radio. The FCC could establish community oversight boards that would enforce “diversity” of ownership and content. Groups such as ACORN would move quickly to dominate the boards and squelch politically incorrect viewpoints.
The American people still have a Constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. But it will become much less meaningful if a revived Fairness Doctrine or its equivalent deprives them of the freedom to listen.