GOP Rallies Behind Talk Radio

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When Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, told a radio host last week that he had overheard Senators Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer discussing a "legislative fix" for the dominance of conservatives in talk radio, the reaction on the right was predictably shrill. Here were hated enemies of conservatives plotting to silence their powerful voices.

While Clinton and Boxer denied they had ever said such a thing — and, in fact, Inhofe later admitted that the conversation in question occurred three years ago — statements this week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Illinois' Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, added to a growing fear amongst some conservatives that the left is on the offensive against talk radio — and that the right needs to fight back.

Feinstein and Durbin both came out in favor of re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine, which, before being struck down in the mid-80's by the FCC, forced broadcasters to offer equal time to hosts on opposing sides of controversial issues. And Tuesday, New York City public radio host Brian Lehrer aired a clip from a months-old interview with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in which Kerry proclaimed, "I think the Fairness Doctrine ought to be there ... One of the most profound changes in the balance of the media was when the conservatives got rid of equal time requirements. The result is that they've been able to squeeze down and squeeze out opinion of opposing views."

One Republican has now decided to launch a counter-attack. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who worked as a talk radio host for more than six years, offered an amendment Thursday to the Financial Services Appropriations bill that would deny funding to the FCC for any effort to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. The bill, with the amendment, passed the House Thursday evening.

The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 is generally acknowledged to be the spark that lit the conservative talk radio flame. A report released by the liberal Center for American Progress last week stated that "91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative," though they also insisted that the blame lies more in ownership consolidation than in the lack of a Fairness Doctrine. Regardless of who's to blame, Sen. Feinstein, speaking to Chris Wallace on Fox News this past Sunday, tore into conservative talk radio, referring to such programming as "explosive" and accused it of pushing "people to extreme views without a lot of information."

Such claims are ridiculous, says Pence, who points to the sheer number of other, less conservative media outlets — cable news channels, newspapers, daily and weekly magazines — that represent a larger flow of American political commentary. While he doesn't explicitly deny the claim that conservatives control talk radio, he argues that liberals are trying to "gain purchase of a market share that they couldn't gain in open competition." Pence and co-sponsor Greg Walden — an Oregon Republican and himself a radio station owner — insist the issue is less about having a balance of viewpoints and more about making sure that the ability to express one's viewpoint on the radio is assured. "The practical effect of this is not that the station that carries Rush Limbaugh would have to carry Al Franken," he says. "But rather, faced with the administrative costs and legal fees associated with conforming to the Fairness Doctrine, that station would carry neither."

As Pence sees it, rather than having to worry about keeping detailed records of how long radio hosts are on, what positions they are taking, and whether those with opposing views are given the same amount of time, radio station owners would just throw in the towel. "You'll simply see them follow the path of least resistance. They'll run country radio or Christian music or go to a type of talk radio that would be neither compelling nor particularly informative. The net effect of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would be the end of talk radio as we know it."

That may seem hard to believe, considering the amount of listeners and ad dollars at stake. But Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, says that — administrative and legal issues aside — the Fairness Doctrine did have a negative effect on talk radio. "It actually inhibited free speech because broadcasters simply avoided covering controversial issues because they feared that the FCC might either fine them or revoke their licenses," he says. "It actually had the practical impact of chilling speech rather than enhancing it."