Fairness Doctrine: It Ain’t Happening, Folks

Conservative pundits are highlighting one of their perpetual boogeymen—the possibility of the return of the “Fairness Doctrine.”

Religious broadcasters and conservative talk radio hosts have warned for years that the doctrine, which courts and the FCC combined to kill in the 1980s, could return, forcing religious stations to allow time for pro-choice and pro-gay-marriage viewpoints.

Fairness Doctrine alarmists are citing a few scattered statements by some prominent Democrats in favor of restoring the principle.

But as James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times pointed out in a commentary Friday, those very Democrats have said the reimposition of the doctrine is not politically feasible, that they have no intention of forcing the issue, and that they have other, higher priorities for media reform.

Nevertheless, the paranoia is growing.

“Ahead of a widely-expected crackdown on free speech and political dissent by the incoming Obama administration, our Dear Leader has appointed a new FCC transition czar to oversee the process,” shouts the Web site of Brian Maloney, a sometime Fox News Channel guest.

In keeping with the spirit of the presidential campaign, Maloney calls this “czar”—Henry Rivera, the telecom leader of Obama’s transition team—a “radical leftist.”

Rivera, a partner at the button-down Washington, D.C., telecom firm Wiley Rein, might be surprised by his newfound ability to make conservatives tremble. So might his wife, Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, an official at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the current (Bush) administration.

Obama himself has been unambiguous in his non-support of the doctrine. “Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters,” a spokesman said in a statement this summer. “He considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible. That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.”

Of course, true believers in the upcoming Fairness Doctrine apocalypse figure that’s all just a Democratic smokescreen for Obama’s “secret agenda.”

“On its face, the statement seems reassuring,” writes the conservative site Pajamas Media. “But Barack Obama has proven himself virtually incapable of adhering to a consistent position. His willingness to brazenly toss previous policy preferences under the bus as soon as they prove inconvenient to his short-term interests cannot be ignored. If he hasn’t hesitated to repeatedly betray liberal orthodoxy to satisfy his immediate needs, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision Obama discarding a right-of-center pledge faster than you can say, ‘This isn’t the fairness doctrine I once knew.’”

Among the evidence of a secret Democratic agenda to restore the doctrine and crush conservative talk radio is a letter from Democrats opposing a bill that would have banned the Fairness Doctrine. It was a pointless bill, Democrats have pointed out, since the Fairness Doctrine does not exist, is not constitutional, and is favored by very few.

Yet some are still seeing the doctrine hiding behind every tree.

The D.C. Examiner newspaper, for example, uncovered the localism proposal floated months ago by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. In that docket, the FCC asked for comments on things like community boards, 24-hour station staffing, and programming reports. The Examiner transforms the proposal from Republican FCC Chairman Martin into something about to really happen.

“If this proposed regulation is adopted,” the Examiner fantasizes, “political activists with ideological agendas on advisory boards will be able to dictate content by producing allies to complain that their interests are not being considered. Christian radio stations will be forced to air programs advocating abortion and gay marriage, which they oppose as a matter of religious conviction. Conservative talk radio stations will be forced to subsidize liberal programming that can’t attract commercial support. Failing to do so would mean loss of the broadcast license.”

The Examiner decodes the “community boards” to really mean “community organizers.”

Another Web site, The American Thinker, takes the Examiner’s stretch and runs with it, bungling the actual history of that localism plan, which was floated long before Obama became any kind of front-runner: “No doubt some of those folks want to keep their jobs after Obama takes office,” the Thinker thinks. “Is this rule an effort to pander to the new administration?”

Back at the L.A. Times, Rainey dug around on the left for some betrayal of the secret agenda. He found none on Daily Kos, a lefty site likened to neo-Nazis by none other than Bill O’Reilly. Rainey asked the Daily Kos proprietor what he thought.

"The right is using it as a straw man to build hysteria and opposition to the incoming Democratic administration and Congress," Markos Moulitsas wrote to Rainey in an e-mail. "But there are zero serious efforts to make it happen."