More than One Way to Get the Truth

By Rob Patterson

During and since the recent presidential election, the right wing and its talk radio mouthpieces have been sounding the alarm about the Democrats and even President Obama reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. It was an FCC regulation from 1949 to 1987 that required licensed broadcasters to give time to controversial issues of public importance in a balanced manner that presented both sides fairly.

Yes, some Democrats in Congress do feel it should be reinstated. But during the campaign an Obama spokesman said that he doesn’t seek to re-impose the Doctrine, and that the issue is a distraction from the more important matters of media ownership caps, public broadcasting and minority access to and ownership of media outlets. Nonetheless, as soon as Congress returned to Washington in January, three Republican members introduced a bill that would prevent the FCC from reinstating it without an act of Congress (shamefully, at a time when so much else requires immediate legislative attention, as an item in Salon.colm pointed out).

The Fairness Doctrine debate is really little more than a tempest in a teacup, even if a Rasmussen poll last August showed that a little less than half the respondents, which were likely voters, favored the government requiring broadcasters to air equal amounts of liberal and conservative commentary. Right wing radio talkers are, however, likely correct that the discussion over fairness these days is provoked by their dominance in talk radio. But legislating balance in talk radio is just isn’t likely to ever get through Congress, and enforcement would be a tangled bugaboo indeed. But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from starting The Free Speech Alliance to battle this “liberal threat.”

Yes, the licensed airwaves do represent a public trust. But for all its politicization, talk radio really isn’t news or editorial commentary. It’s entertainment. And the fact that the field is dominated by conservatives as well as that the left hasn’t managed to present a successful alternative has as much to do with that fact as anything.

I may fervently disagree with Rush Limbaugh and his ilk and also find much of what they say and how the present it objectionable. But when I do listen to them, it’s obvious why they are popular: They know how to entertain. And it’s been the rare leftist who I’ve heard who can entertain with the same sort of effectiveness as the right wingers do.

The Air America alternative remains but a ripple on the radio dials of America, even if, when I was listening regularly—prior to getting satellite radio, it was about all I tuned in to on terrestrial radio—it had some hosts who I felt had some juice. The best were already entertainers like Al Franken and Jerry Springer, and to its credit, Air America did launch Rachel Maddow to a larger forum.

But the talk radio fairness is best settled as a fight-fire-with-fire tactic. Government-mandated balance, in addition to creating more bureaucracy we simply don’t need, wouldn’t change the listener numbers much, as I see it. And there’s serious First Amendment issues that would arise if the Fairness Doctrine returned.

Besides, in the “culture wars,” as the right wing calls it, the liberal side of things is winning any battle there might be. Popular culture and entertainment transmits ideas and values as effectively as anything, and even for all the tripe and tackiness on TV and in film and music, a look at what people consume suggests this nation is indeed center left, just as Obama’s victory and the resurgence of the Democratic Party at the polls indicate the same.

If there are liberals and leftists who might entertain on talk radio in ways that draw an audience, perhaps the dominance of right wingers in that medium can be countered. But I say let ‘em have their 40 acres and a howling, bawling mule on the airwaves. And those who find them offensive should tune in and be amused, because for all their fulminating over the last two decades, conservative talkers are part of the same failed movement as the Bush administration whose policies and directions that voters just decisively rejected.

The true issues with the broadcast and cable media that need to be addressed are consolidation of ownership, a comprehensive program of campaign finance that opens these media up to balanced presentation of campaign pitches and platforms, and a genuine local news and public service initiative that brings local media outlets back into community. Because even if radio is in the hands of too few companies, with all the television cable channels as well as the Internet, to adapt a phrase from The X Files, the truth does get out there, and so does the leftist message.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 1, 2009

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