Silencing Political Dissent a Dangerous Idea

Limbaugh stokes debate on talk radio. Is it too conservative? Should the government mandate fairness?

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The history of the fairness doctrine—and of the industry it once regulated—is all the evidence needed to discard it and similar federal policies forever.

When it was imposed in 1949, there were 51 television stations and about 1,500 radio stations in the United States. Because relatively few broadcast hours were devoted to public affairs, the doctrine aimed to ensure that “equal time” was devoted to both sides of controversial issues. By the time the Federal Communications Commission repealed it in 1987, there were 1,200 television stations and 9,800 radio stations. Today, the 1,800 television stations and 14,000 radio stations—bristling with political and religious commentary from every imaginable perspective—have definitively answered any Truman-era concerns about diversity of opinion on the airwaves.

Indeed, since broadcasters have been freed from these controls, talk radio has become one of the fastest-growing and most profitable media industries, specifically by providing average Americans an opportunity to join national debates. The historical record is clear: The fairness doctrine, however well intentioned, muzzled political speech and retarded the growth of an industry that has created thousands of jobs.

The only reason some liberals today—from Bill Clinton to John Kerry to Nancy Pelosi—recommend reinstating the fairness doctrine is that they feel they’re the ones being criticized on talk radio. That is often true, and there is no question that conservatives have found a home there. These outlets present an alternative to the prevailing liberalism of the mainstream media.

The rise of talk radio has been a triumph of the First Amendment and the free market. The government neither restricts nor encourages what broadcasters say—Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Rachel Maddow all sink or swim based on their ability to hold an audience. That’s how it should be. Government-mandated balance would force these hosts and others to spend half their shows passionately disagreeing with themselves. The very idea is laughable.

Politicians using state power to censor their own critics is about as un-American an idea as can be fathomed. That’s why longtime fairness doctrine proponents recently beat a tactical retreat. Last month, 87 senators—including 45 Democrats—voted to bar the FCC from ever reinstating it. Unfortunately, 57 Democrats then passed another amendment, sponsored by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, that ordered the FCC to impose rules that “encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership, and to ensure that the public airwaves are used in the public interest.”

Essentially, Durbin and his allies want the FCC to impose diversity quotas on station owners. It’s not clear whether they would regulate ownership on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, or even political views. But the intent is clear: break up successful radio networks that feature right-of-center programming, and trim the influence of nationally syndicated conservative talk shows. The effect will be the same as the fairness doctrine—muzzling political commentary. Luckily, talk radio hosts—and their tens of millions of listeners—are aware of the games politicians play. Their vigilance during this debate spurred thousands of phone calls and E-mails urging Congress to leave their radio dials alone.

And that’s the whole point. If you listen closely to the proponents of the fairness/Durbin doctrine, you hear a recurring—and troubling—theme. Durbin said we need federal control of political speech in order to put Americans “in a better position to make a decision.” Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico says talk radio has become “less intelligent.” And California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein says talk radio “pushes people to extreme views without a lot of information.”

They don’t seem to think citizens are bright enough to inform themselves on issues of public importance. This rhetoric infantilizes voters, as if we’re all too impressionable to be exposed to the rough-and-tumble of political discourse. They believe Americans must be shielded from conservative arguments by our benevolent protectors in Washington. I think most Americans—a majority of whom just elected a Democrat president and Democrat majorities in the Congress!—would be insulted by this elitist paternalism.