Fairness and Rush Limbaugh

September 03, 1993

Rush Limbaugh says the effort to revive the Fairness Doctrine VTC is an attack on him specifically and radio talk show hosts generally because they are conservatives. Ditto says syndicated columnist Cal Thomas (Opinion * Commentary page, Sept. 1), ditto says the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and ditto say lots of local radio talk jockeys.

Whack-o, we say. Paranoid fantasy. Consider:

* The leader of the effort to codify the old Fairness Doctrine is Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C. Americans for Democratic Action says his "liberal quotient" in Senate votes last year was 35. By comparison, Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski got 100. Even Sam Nunn, D-Ga., got 65.

* Senator Hollings has been introducing legislation in the Senate every Congress since the Federal Communications Commission threw out the Fairness Doctrine (which had always been just a regulation, not a law) in 1987. Rush Limbaugh didn't even start his network till 1988.

* The 1987 bill passed, but Ronald Reagan vetoed it. Many conservatives voted with Mr. Hollings in 1987, which was the last time Congress voted on it. Maryland's Helen Delich Bentley, for example.

* Reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine would not threaten the Rush Limbaughs of the nation. All it says is that broadcasters must "afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance." We imagine the FCC and/or the courts would interpret that to mean if Rush Limbaugh took occasional calls from listeners who disagreed with him, fairness would be honored.

* The idea that talk radio is monolithically conservative is unfounded. The Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press studied the talk radio phenomenon. It reported in July that listeners and hosts are a diverse group (more hosts identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans).

Many liberal journalists regard the Fairness Doctrine as unnecessary, even unconstitutional. The Supreme Court addressed this issue 24 years ago. That old conservative, Justice Byron White, said for a unanimous court that while broadcasters were entitled to many of the same First Amendment considerations that newspapers enjoy, the limited amount of broadcast spectrum, which the public owns, made it inevitable that some government agency would oversee broadcasters.

There was a "scarcity" of broadcast "space," said Justice White. That is far less true today. Probably to the point that neither the Fairness Doctrine nor any similar rules regarding the content of broadcasts is needed or constitutional. In any event, six years after the end of the Fairness Doctrine, with radio talk at its zenith and cable television exploding, it is time for Congress to re-examine the issue.

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