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Published: Sunday, 2/15/2009

Some Democrats hope to reinstate Fairness Doctrine

BY TOM TROY
AND KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

The Fairness Doctrine, a vestige of an America that had radio and TV but no Internet, could be poised for a comeback.

A regular parade of Democratic politicians has expressed interest in reviving the rule that - until it was abolished by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 - forced stations to toe an ideologically neutral line.

And although some experts scoff at the suggestion that the rule could make a comeback, some restrictions are likely to be attempted, either in Congress or by the Federal Communications Commission.

U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D., N.Y.) plans to reintroduce his 2005 bill, the Media Ownership Reform Act, that would reinstate caps on how many stations one company can own.

"We're going to focus attention on [the Fairness Doctrine] and see what happens, but our initial objective right now is this Media Reform Act," Mr. Hinchey said.

"We have six major companies that own the vast majority of broadcast stations. It confines the broadcast operation to their particular perspective and doesn't open it up to others."

The interest in revisiting the Fairness Doctrine has spread to Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and former President Bill Clinton, who have endorsed the idea in recent months.

It's been a longstanding concern of Robert Kennedy, Jr., a talk-show host and environmentalist.

At the least, Mr. Hinchey said, he'd like to hold hearings on the topic. "I am very much interested in reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, and I've been attempting to do it in a variety of ways in the 16 years I've been down here," he said.

Mr. Hinchey could use Toledo as a test case.

Toledo is typical of many large American cities in that its largest AM station, WSPD-AM 1370, provides conservative content all day long both with syndicated hosts Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin and local talkers Fred LeFebvre, Brian Wilson, and Maggie Thurber.

From morning to night, the drumbeat pounds on, with listeners told repeatedly that government is bad, that politicians steal the public's money, and that President Obama and the Democrats are transforming America into a socialist state.

Conservative Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) are interviewed to reinforce the themes.

On Friday, Mr. Latta told WSPD's afternoon host, Brian Wilson, that a recent Newsweek cover proclaiming "WE ARE ALL SOCIALISTS NOW" should have included the Soviet hammer and sickle.

When called by The Blade, Mr. Latta backpedaled, saying he didn't mean to imply that the United States is a socialist state, but said he was concerned the country is heading in that direction.

Also last week, WSPD, on the Glenn Beck show, broadcast what GOP pundits have called the "Obama National Anthem" set to the former Soviet national anthem.

"All hail the messiah, Obama, Obama, the path to the new socialist motherland, our savior, our savior, Obama, Obama," the song went.

"Bow down and praise the one, give him your money and your guns. Lord Barry heal the bitter ones, white and clinging to faith and to guns."

But WSPD doesn't aim its bile at only the President; it also loves to ridicule local politicians even if it contradicts itself in the process.

Last week, morning talk-show host Fred LeFebvre, after railing to listeners about the stupidity of paying taxes because government wastes the money of "hard-working men and women of the middle class," took off after Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop because he questioned the travel expenses of a county employee and raises given to nonunion county employees.

Watch out, he told county workers, "young Ben would like to have the emphasis on repealing your raise."

Mr. Konop said Friday that there "appears to be no coherent ideology, whatsoever, in the negative, contradictory, and unconstructive diatribes that drive WSPD talk radio.

"They criticize my conservative proposals to shrink government and lower taxes just as vigorously as they criticize my progressive ideas to have government help working people pay for college."

"There is plenty of need in this town for constructive, informed debate on the serious challenges we face. WSPD is, sadly, not the place for that," Mr. Konop said.

Mr. Wilson, who is also WSPD's program director and the former owner of radio stations, said restoring the Fairness Doctrine would abolish serious political discourse.

To resurrect the doctrine, or anything similar, "would be the end of the quality of talk radio," he said.

Others, like Robert Kennedy, Jr., an environmental activist and co-host of Ring of Fire on the liberal Air America Radio network, contend that it would introduce a long-absent level of quality and importance to all media.

During a 2006 forum at the University of Southern Mississippi, Mr. Kennedy said the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine has blocked the public from getting the news it needs if the nation is to have a healthy democracy, according to a news release from the university.

In a 2005 speech to the Sierra Club's national convention in San Francisco, Mr. Kennedy linked the deterioration of corporate-owned media giants to the absence of the Fairness Doctrine, contending that six major conglomerates control nearly all of the nation's 14,000 radio stations, nearly 6,000 TV stations, and the major share of newspapers.

"So you have six guys who dictate what Americans have as information and what we see as news," Mr. Kennedy said.

"The news departments have become corporate profit centers. They no longer have any obligation to benefit the public interest; their only obligation is to their shareholders, and they fulfill that obligation by increasing viewership."

He added, "The Fairness Doctrine said that the airwaves belong to the public. They were public-trust assets, just like our air and water, and broadcasters could be licensed to use them but only with the proviso that they use them to promote the public interest and to advance American democracy. They had to inform the public of issues of public import."

The Fairness Doctrine was put in place in 1949.

According to FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, an appointee of President George W. Bush, the idea of regulating the airwaves started in the 1920s, an era of a limited number of radio frequencies.

He said fear of extreme ideologies prompted the FCC in 1940 to ban broadcast editorializing.

But after World War II, the agency settled on two requirements: that, as a condition of their licenses, broadcasters devote air time to coverage of important public issues in their community and offer reasonable opportunities for contrasting viewpoints.

Mr. Hinchey said the desire to regulate radio stemmed in part from the role radio played in bringing Europe under the control of fascism between World War I and World War II.

"It was put into place primarily based on the experience of what happened with the fascist governments controlling countries in Europe in the '20s and '30s and '40s and the way governments used this new communication system, radio, to control the political conditions in their country by controlling the information that people received," Mr. Hinchey said.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that no one had a constitutional right to a radio station license, and the government had a right to regulate the limited radio spectrum.

In 1987, President Reagan directed the Federal Communications Commission to stop enforcing the Fairness Doctrine.

A liberal Congress attempted to revive it that same year but couldn't muster enough votes to overturn a Reagan veto.

The combination of the lifting of the Fairness Doctrine and the lifting of ownership caps in 1996 led to the domination of radio by conservative talk show programs.

The Center for American Progress and Free Press in 2007 surveyed the 257 stations operated by the five largest radio companies and found that conservative talk accounted for 91 percent of their programming, with the rest being "progressive."

And most of that progressive talk was in large cities, with many markets 100 percent conservative in the talk formats.

The center called for revising the FCC's regulations in order to get more ideological balance coming out of the radio stations across America.

In 2005, two bills were introduced in the House aimed at reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, by Mr. Hinchey and by a fellow New York Democrat, Rep. Louise Slaughter.

Both measures died in committee.

President Obama has splashed cold water on such talk.

But he has said he supports "opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible," media-ownership caps, network neutrality, and public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.

Mr. Hinchey said he wants to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, saying, "I think the Fairness Doctrine is absolutely essential.

"But when you're dealing in the Congress here you have to deal with the set of circumstances that exist, and there's a very big question whether we could succeed at getting a Fairness Doctrine passed here again," he said.

Indeed, in 2007, when the House already was under Democratic control, an amendment to prohibit the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine passed with only 15 "no" votes.

Under Mr. Hinchey's Media Ownership Reform Act, any one company would be prohibited from owning broadcast stations that reach more than 35 percent of U.S. television households, and any single company would be banned from owning more than 5 percent of all AM and FM stations.

The bill also would require stations to report every two years on how they are serving the public interest and to hold at least two community public hearings per year to determine local needs and interests.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) was a co-sponsor of Mr. Hinchey's bill when it advocated reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

She said the radio waves should have more diversity, which she thinks would be accomplished with local ownership.

"Our broadcast media are largely absentee-owned. I believe in local ownership, local control. I think there's an argument to be made for balance and fair play," Miss Kaptur said.

Toledo, in fact, has some liberal voices among the air waves.

Liberal broadcasters Bill Press and Stephanie Miller can be heard on WNWT-AM 1520, a 500-watt station in Rossford - Mr. Press from 6 to 9 a.m. and Ms. Miller from 9 to 11 a.m.

Tom Watkins, who recently resigned as the morning drive host on WTOD-AM 1560, said an untapped potential is in radio hosts who give consideration to both sides of an issue.

"The average listener likes some of the conservative things, they like some of the Democratic or liberal side," said Mr. Watkins, a 40-year veteran of radio.

"Liberal talk traditionally has not made money anywhere, because sponsors, business people, are traditionally conservative and just will not sign on to it. They don't want to get linked with a liberal agenda," Mr. Watkins said.

Last week, Thom Hartmann, the host of The Thom Hartmann Program, which is syndicated by Air America Radio Network from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays on more than 50 stations nationwide, responded to a caller about the Fairness Doctrine by saying it is widely mischaracterized by conservative radio hosts.

"They characterize the Fairness Doctrine as some bureaucrat someplace is going to sit there and say this is a liberal show and this is a conservative show - there has to be absolute balance," said Mr. Hartmann, who is host of the most widely listened to liberal talk radio show in the country.

"That was never the Fairness Doctrine to begin with. The Fairness Doctrine had to do with stations having to be sure that in areas of public interest and local public interest that all sides of an argument were aired."

Mr. Hartmann, in an interview with The Blade, recalled working for a Lansing radio station during the Fairness Doctrine years.

"Around the time of elections we had to make reasonable good-faith efforts that we cover all the political points of view," Mr. Hartmann said.

"There was no checklist. There was no hysteria."

Mr. Hartmann - who noted that his show beats Mr. Limbaugh in the ratings in the Seattle and Portland markets and beats Bill O'Reilly 2 to 1 in Los Angeles - blamed what ails the media in part on consolidation and the absence of laws restricting how many radio stations a company is allowed to own.

"When the rules changed, it allowed the giant corporate predators to come in," Mr. Hartmann said.

"Those rules that had to do with media ownership, which were part of the Fairness Doctrine, they need to be reinstated."

As much as Democrats might wish for pro-Democratic voices to equal the pro-Republican voices on the radio, many observers say it's just not going to happen.

"[The Fairness Doctrine is] a very thorny area that has always created constitutional problems and administrative problems," said Christopher Redding, a Washington attorney specializing in communication matters.

"You're essentially regulating speech."

In a newspaper guest column, Mr. Press said the public airwaves tilt too far right and aren't representative of millions of Americans, but he is not pushing for the Fairness Doctrine.

"What I'm pushing for is that radio station owners should be held accountable for living up to the terms of their licenses," Mr. Press said. "My argument is they're not acting in general public interest if all they offer are right-wing talkers."

Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said he isn't among those who want to revisit the Fairness Doctrine, saying "there's no sense in feeding the right-wing kooks more material."

Instead, Mr. Redfern said he has another method of handling his radio listening.

"I'm a big fan of just turning off WSPD," he said. "I just change the channel."

Blade staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this report.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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