Published on
the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)

The Threat of Fairness

Joel McNally

As right-wing talk show hosts see their political power waning in America, they are now worried about a brand new threat to their bizarre version of democracy.

After dominating the public airwaves for two decades, right-wing radio is terrified that a new administration will be more open to attempts in Congress to require talk radio to, gulp, be fair.

I became aware of this last week when I was invited by the Marquette Law School student chapter of the conservative Federalist Society to debate two right-wing talk show hosts, Charlie Sykes from WTMJ/AM in Milwaukee and Guy Benson from WIND/AM in Chicago.

You'd never guess what has conservatives in such a tizzy. It's a rather mild requirement the Federal Communications Commission once enforced in this country requiring radio and television stations to air opposing views on public issues.

It was called the Fairness Doctrine. The basic premise was that the public airwaves, which belong to all of us, could accommodate only a limited number of broadcast stations licensed by the government.

In exchange for those lucrative licenses, the government declared broadcasters had a public responsibility to cover controversial issues of community importance and to at least make some attempt at fairness by allowing more than one side to be heard. The requirement was intentionally vague and far from any kind of onerous burden on broadcasters. It never required anything close to equal time. Broadcasters were given broad discretion about how and when alternative views would be aired.

In the mid-'80s, President Ronald Reagan's FCC killed the requirement of even that minimal gesture toward "fairness" in the name of de-regulation. That is what allowed the rise of the all-right-wing-all-the-time radio that dominates the dial today.

We now have a talk radio industry in this country that is so overwhelmingly one-sided it most resembles a government-run media in some totalitarian country rather than what citizens should have a right to expect on the public airwaves of a democracy.

Led by Rush Limbaugh, AM talk radio is dominated not merely by conservatives, but by the far-right fringes of conservatism -- true whack jobs like G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Savage who regularly cross every line of decency to promote racism and even violence.

Even the unscrupulous President Richard Nixon, who utilized Liddy's talents for black bag jobs run out of the White House, described Gordon on the Watergate tapes as mentally unbalanced. On the air, Liddy has advised gun owners on the best way to murder federal agents who attempt to take away their guns: "Head shots! Head shots!"

While this one-sided, right-wing juggernaut has been expanding, we also know from presidential elections since the Reagan era that the citizens of this country are not overwhelmingly right wing.

In fact, most of the presidential elections over the past two decades have been extremely close, indicating something close to a 50-50 political division in this country.


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So you have fully half of this country whose point of view is totally shut out from our so-called public airwaves.

That's why it was so amusing to hear both Sykes and Benson argue against restoring the Fairness Doctrine by claiming it would deny free speech. It would allow the big, bad federal government to control what could be said on the radio.

It's simply amazing to hear right-wing conservatives use a free speech argument to justify shutting out the speech of anyone other than themselves -- more than half the country who don't hold right-wing views.

Conservatives explain the total dominance of right-wing opinions on talk radio by claiming that right-wing personalities are somehow inherently more interesting and entertaining than anyone expressing views on the left.

That doesn't make any sense at a time when the intelligent, hilarious news satires of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert coming from the left are among the most popular shows on television.

It seems far more likely that half of America doesn't even bother turning on commercial talk radio because they expect their intelligence to be insulted by simple-minded, right-wing rants up and down the dial.

And, for the most part, they're right unless they check out Milwaukee's 1290 WMCS/AM, where I co-host "The Morning Magazine" from 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays.

It's true some Democratic political leaders including Sens. Richard Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry and others have expressed an interest in reviving the Fairness Doctrine in some form and increasing diversity in ownership to expand the voices on the public airwaves.

Right-wing talk show hosts will scream bloody murder. But it could be very healthy for the broadcast industry, ultimately expanding both audiences and profits.

During the economic collapse of recent weeks, we've learned totally unregulated capitalism doesn't always produce the best results for either the public or for business.

It's time for totalitarian right-wing radio to tear down that wall and stop shutting half the public off the public airwaves.

Joel McNally of Milwaukee writes a regular column for The Capital Times.

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