Fairness Doctrine 'Debate' Goes Off the Deep End

The Fairness Doctrine is dead. But some Republicans are still trying to prop up the issue and parade it around in a tired political theater production of Weekend at Bernie's.

The star of the show is Rush Limbaugh, de facto leader of the Republican Party, who saw one of his latest crusades derailed last week when the Democrat-controlled Senate overwhelmingly voted to permanently ban the long-deceased federal rule that required broadcasters to present contrasting views on controversial issues.

Needing a new bogeyman, Limbaugh has turned his sights to the next head of the Federal Communications Commission. On Wednesday's show he compared FCC nominee Julius Genachowski to -- surprise, surprise -- Hugo Chavez:

I did a little research on Mr. Julius last night, and it turns out that Mr. Julius is very devoted to localism, local content rules. He's very devoted to the concept of minority ownership, diversifying in ownership. Julius Genachowski, this man's resume sounds like he would fit perfectly with Hugo Chavez in identifying some of this media critical of the government and devising strategies of what to do about it.

Welcome to El Rushbo's alternate universe, where a moderate lawyer and venture capitalist is synonymous with the Venezuelan president; diversity is something to fear; localism equals communism; and the greatest threat to free speech is still a rarely enforced rule that disappeared from the books during the Reagan administration.

Doctrine Not Dead Yet?

As I've written again and again, there is no chance the Fairness Doctrine will come back. There's no bill to reinstate it in Congress, no proceeding before the FCC that would resurrect it, and no public interest advocates are campaigning for it. President Barack Obama has unequivocally and repeatedly stated his opposition to its return.

Of course, none of that dissuaded Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) from attaching an amendment banning the Fairness Doctrine to a completely unrelated bill on voting rights for Washington, D.C. While waving his arms and decrying "socialism" on the Senate floor, DeMint also tried to sneak a line into the legislation that would prevent the FCC from imposing "any similar requirement that broadcasters meet programming quotas or guidelines for issues of public importance."

Such incredibly broad language would mean, for example, that the FCC couldn't require a minimum amount of children's or public affairs programming, or even suggest that stations using the public airwaves try to pay attention to their local communities.

Fortunately, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) caught on to this ruse and introduced his own amendment, striking the devious part of DeMint's legislation and reaffirming the FCC's commitment to "take actions to encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership."

Let's be clear about what happened: Durbin, along with 86 other senators, voted to keep the Fairness Doctrine in the grave. All Durbin's amendment, which passed on a party-line vote 57-41, would do is clarify that the FCC could continue carrying out its core mission -- as enshrined in the Communications Act of 1934 -- to promote competition, localism and diversity in the media.

So the Senate voted to abolish a rule that didn't exist and endorse policies that have been in place for 75 years. To the barricades!

The 'Durbin Doctrine'

Within minutes of the Senate vote, DeMint was braying about how the Democrats were going to censor conservative and Christian radio via the terrifying and now unlocked back door. Then he went on Lou Dobbs to sound the alarm.

Suddenly, the Fairness Doctrine had mutated into the new, more dangerous "Durbin Doctrine."

Soon, L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center was ominously warning of Julius Genachowski's history as a "a long-time proponent of media-ownership rules that encourage more diversity" and demanding that the new FCC chief publicly disavow use of the "frightening new governmental censorship powers" allegedly handed to him by Durbin.

Of course, there are no such powers. There's no legal way for the FCC to use ownership rules or localism requirements to censor content. In theory, the agency could ask broadcasters to hold community events and get feedback from their listeners in exchange for their lucrative licenses to use the public airwaves. All the rest is an absurd fantasy completely divorced from reality and history, which shows broadcast licenses have been revoked in only the most extreme and rare circumstances. (Like a KKK-run TV station in Mississippi in 1969.)

All this talk of censorship is a little hard to swallow from Bozell, who founded the Parents Television Council to go after "indecency" and stray swear words on TV. While he's happy for the government to spend taxpayer money to guard against nipple slips, the idea of encouraging minority ownership or asking broadcasters to meet every few years with their listeners is somehow one step away from the Gulag.

Here's the other thing: Bozell was for the "Durbin Doctrine" before he was against it. To his flip-flopping credit, in fact, Bozell and his colleagues not only have encouraged the FCC to keep an eye out for smut, but they've long opposed runaway media consolidation and supported more local ownership.

And Comrade Bozell's not alone in his pink-hued affection for the now dreaded "localism." His fellow travelers include Bush-appointed FCC chairs Kevin Martin ("broadcasters are required to meet the needs and interests of their local audience") and Michael Powell ("Given our shared commitment in this area, I am optimistic that we will reach consensus on how the FCC can promote localism by broadcasters.")

Big Media Megaphone

In fact, even Clear Channel is fan of localism when it suits its purposes. The radio giant is endlessly touting its free, local service when seeking favors at the FCC. Most recently, the conglomerate opposed the XM-Sirius satellite merger because, to quote from Clear Channel's filing, "Permitting one company to control so much spectrum would inevitably undermine the viability of free, over-the-air, advertiser-supported radio's economic model, harming localism and diversity, the pillars of the public interest under the Communications Act of 1934, as amended."

Clear Channel also just so happens to be the company that syndicates Rush Limbaugh and awarded him a $400 million contract last year. Nobody could argue he's not earning his keep. For a guy who's supposedly such a foe of the mainstream media, he sure spends a lot of time doing their bidding:

Let's say you've got a large owner of radio stations. Clear Channel happens to own, what is it, 1,700 radio stations, they're not all talk, a lot of them are music stations. They even have Chinese opera format radio stations. But somebody like Obama and his new FCC chairman might look at that and say, "There's not enough diversity, one big company, no, no, no, we need to break some of that up. ... We've gotta bust up some of these conglomerate guys and open up radio to minority ownership. So, you do that, and if a bunch of minorities end up owning a bunch of stations. ... If some of them don't like me, get rid of me, put on Al Sharpton. Get rid of me, find some local program. This is the way they envision it happening.

Some might remember a time when we actually had local radio newsrooms, local music, local talent, and local owners who actually lived in the community. Some might ask why women and people of color own so few of the nation's radio stations. Some might question how many of the nearly 2,000 Clear Channel employees sacked on Inauguration Day might still have jobs if Rush took home a little less.

But who has time to worry about all that with localism on the march and the Fairness Doctrine lurking out back?