"DEMS SET TO MUZZLE THE RIGHT," blared a recent headline in the New York Post -- one of a seemingly endless series of articles warning that if Democrats take power in Washington, they're going to hush the Rush Limbaughs of the world via a sinister plot to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine was a longstanding, if seldom enforced, regulation that required broadcasters using the public airwaves to present contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues. It was taken off the books by the Reagan administration in 1987 -- a move that is often credited/criticized for sparking the rise of right-wing radio.
Now it seems that anytime the GOP dips in the polls, up pops news of a secret plot to "drive political talk radio off the dial," to quote the Post. It's red meat for the right-wing base.
But here's the truth: The Fairness Doctrine is never, ever coming back.
And that's a good thing.
A Phantom Threat
In a down year for the GOP, the Fairness Doctrine never fails to rile up the Dittoheads -- a phantom threat that mostly serves to get the pundits peddling it on talk radio shows or to raise money for right-wing media watchdogs.
Brian Anderson of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote the Post article, as well as one two weeks earlier for Investor's Business Daily, is the most prolific of the Doctrine doomsayers. He warns that a Democratic victory could unleash "a full-scale war to drive critics -- especially on political talk radio -- right out of legitimate public debate."
George Will, writing in his widely syndicated Washington Post column, listed vetoing a new Fairness Doctrine as one of the top two reasons to vote for John McCain. "Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media," he proclaimed, "want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives' dominance."
Reading op-ed pages and blogs, or listening to some of the conservative talkers, you'd think the Fairness Doctrine was at the top of the Democratic Party platform. But no serious policy advocate in Washington is pushing to restore it. No bill to bring it back is moving through the Democrat-controlled Congress. And Barack Obama, has stated -- unequivocally -- that "he does not support re-imposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters."
But why let reality get in the way of good direct mail pitch?
The Doctrine Won't Work
Some progressives -- and misguided members of Congress, too -- cling to the notion that restoring the Fairness Doctrine would restrain right-wing talk radio. They should see that the Doctrine is just a manufactured controversy that emboldens their opponents.
If you want more balance and variety on the airwaves, the Fairness Doctrine won't do it. It's a poorly designed, constitutionally dubious policy -- one that failed to meet its arguably well-intentioned purpose the first time around.
The old Fairness Doctrine -- which admirably did establish a duty for each broadcaster to cover local issues in their communities -- was infrequently enforced and easy to avoid, as Matthew Lasar details here. Only a miniscule number of complaints filed were ever taken up by the FCC.
And despite the heated rhetoric in the conservative press, progressives should remember that a new Fairness Doctrine would cut both ways. For every complaint about some noxious shock jock's rant, there's sure to be a coordinated attack on "liberal advocacy journalism."
The government simply shouldn't be in the speech-regulating business. Instead of bureaucrats deciding what constitutes "balance," we need policies that encourage -- in the words of the Supreme Court's 1945 Associated Press decision -- "the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public."
The Real Problem
Political imbalance on the radio dial shouldn't be blamed on the Doctrine's demise. The real culprit is runaway media consolidation. The biggest companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus have swallowed up hundreds of local stations, shuttering newsrooms and supplanting local talent to pipe in the same cookie-cutter, mostly conservative content from coast to coast.
According to a 2007 study by the Center for American Progress and Free Press, 91 percent of the programming is conservative on the talk stations owned by the five biggest commercial radio owners. Clearly those figures don't match the political leanings of the country. But, then again, the nation's media owners don't represent the U.S. population: Less than 8 percent of commercial radio station owners are people of color, and just 6 percent are women.
But media consolidation is also why local news and musical variety are disappearing from the airwaves. It's why many parents won't tune in with their kids in the car, because they're afraid to hear sexually explicit content on the way to school. It's why so many of us -- regardless of our political persuasion -- think the radio seems so much worse than it used to be.
Which brings us to the best reason to abandon the Fairness Doctrine: There's a much better, bipartisan solution.
Forget the Fairness Doctrine
Both the left and the right widely agree that the corporate media is too concentrated and ignores local needs. Instead of policing content, Congress and the FCC should adopt policies to increase the diversity of owners, the choices for listeners or viewers, and the opportunities for new voices to get on the air.
We also need to open up the airwaves with policies that allow more low-power and other community radio stations. We must protect free speech on the Internet and pass "Net Neutrality" laws to keep the phone and cable companies from becoming gatekeepers who decide which content gets preferential treatment.
Rather than trying to limit the range of opinions, we should be working to foster as many alternatives as we can imagine. The public debate we should be having is about how well the media are serving our communities and bolstering our democracy.
The Fairness Doctrine is just a distraction.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Guardian. Read it there if you prefer your color with a u.