WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats on Friday blocked an amendment that would have prevented the return of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal rule requiring broadcasters to air opposing views on issues.Although no legislation has been offered to bring back the regulation, which was scrapped in 1987, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and other Republicans have been mounting a pre-emptive attack in recent weeks. They argue that a return to the old rule would give the government too much power in regulating content. The House recently passed an amendment banning the rule's return.
When Coleman, R-Minn., tried to bring up his amendment Friday to a defense authorization bill, Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, objected. Levin's office said he objected because the amendment belonged in the Commerce Committee's jurisdiction, and because it would have taken up time while the Senate was trying to debate Iraq.
The subtext of the debate over the Fairness Doctrine is talk radio's perceived dominance by conservative voices.
In a telephone interview, Coleman said his motivation was to preserve the First Amendment. But he added: "I do have a strong objection to folks wanting to cut off talk radio because it's conservative. Let the people be able to make the choice."
"Having the bureaucrats dictate the content of the airwaves isn't much different from what we are seeing in places like Iran and Russia where they are rolling back freedom of the press," he said.
Republicans have seized on a comment made last month by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said "it's time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine." Durbin's spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, said that Durbin was expressing support for the concept but has no plans to introduce legislation.
"There is no big conspiracy here, there's no secret plan, there's no nothing," he said.
Durbin and Coleman briefly debated the idea on the Senate floor Friday, with Durbin asking Coleman if he believed it serves the interests of an educated electorate if people could hear both sides of the story.
"Absolutely," Coleman responded. "But I believe - strongly believe - that the government should not be in the position of deciding and dictating, 'now here is the other side.'" He said with the proliferation of communication options such as the Internet, Americans have plenty of opportunity to get the other side.
"The airwaves belong to the American people," Durbin said. "Those who profit from them do by permission of the people through their government." He said that broadcasters should provide both points of view on an issue.
Ed Schultz, a North Dakota-based liberal-leaning talk show host who has more than 3 million listeners on more than 100 stations, also said the airwaves belong to the public.
He said the Republicans' efforts are overreactions, and said he is traveling to Washington next week to talk to talk to Democrats about the issue.
"The issue is liberal talkers haven't even been given a market opportunity in many markets across the country," he said.
He is frustrated because his show is not airing in such major markets as Boston and Philadelphia, where he says certain companies are keeping progressive shows out.
"I'm just open to hearing these conservative companies explain their thought process," he said.
The Federal Communications Commission on Friday referred to comments made by its chairman, Kevin Martin, in an interview this year with Broadcasting & Cable. Asked if he'd support bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, Martin responded, "No. The commission eliminated the doctrine in 1987. Doing so has made for a lot of opportunities in things like talk radio."
Coleman said in the telephone interview that he also has concerns when the FCC tries to regulate content for sex and violence.
"There are limitations on what the FCC should do," he said. "We need to tread very carefully when regulating content ... The best tool is a good family."
© 2007 Associated Press