Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Leveling Talk Radio

On the conservative side of the blogosphere, there's a running debate as to who is the worst liberal columnist. For example, the guys at Powerline hold E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post in particularly low esteem, although Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune would certainly win their vote for the worst local scribe.

As for other deserving candidates, you can find plenty of contempt for the work of such writers as Frank Rich and Paul Krugman of The New York Times, the Post's Richard Cohen, and my personal favorite, Robert Scheer, who was fired last year as an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times (his "work" now appears in the San Francisco Chronicle and is syndicated in other papers around the country).

Another worthy nominee in the "worst liberal columnist" sweepstakes is Howard Fineman of Newsweek. Mr. Fineman deserves special recognition, because his work is depicted as "news analysis" versus pure opinion. His latest piece, on Democratic efforts to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, is a prime example of Fineman at his best (or worst), depending on your point of view. Entitled "Leveling the Media Playing Field," Fineman's column casts the Democrats' strategy as an attempt to improve media access for their candidates:

"As the 10 Republican presidential candidates debate this week on their favorite cable network—Fox News—Capitol Hill Democrats are planning a new drive for access elsewhere, on talk radio and local broadcast TV. The goal? To level the media playing field in time for the 2008 election.

According to Mr. Fineman, the Democrats' media plan has two over-arching goals: prod (some would say "force) local TV stations to renew the "atrophied" commitment to public affairs programs, providing more time for their candidates to be heard. The second element of their strategy is aimed at re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine, to end "conservative dominance" of talk radio.

And, in typical liberal fashion, Fineman goes on to describe the problem, citing a "study" (conducted by Democratic-affiliated groups, no less) which reveals--surprise, surprise--that conservative dominance of talk radio is increasing. Mr. Fineman observes that the hallowed Fairness Doctrine kept such "partisan" shows (like Rush Limbaugh) off the air for years, by mandating that broadcasters provide "equal time" for opposing viewpoints. Reimposing the doctrine, he suggests, would restore a measure of balance to the radio airwaves.

Rubbish. We wrote about Democratic efforts to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine last month, during the Don Imus controversy. While leaders of this campaign use terms like "access" and "balance," their real goal is to simply shut down conservative talk radio. Under a new Fairness Doctrine, a talk station that carries hosts like Neal Boortz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would have to provide an equal amount of airtime for personalities with opposing views. In other words, the nine hours devoted to conservative hosts would be matched by nine hours of programming providing liberal opinion. Stations would be compelled to "seek out" those opposing viewpoints, or risk losing their broadcast license.

In other words, the "new" Fairness Doctrine would put a heavy burden on broadcasters, and discourage them from carrying conservative hosts. And that's the Democrats' real goal; silence conservative talk shows and restore liberal dominance in all forms of media. Having tried (unsuccessfully) to compete in talk radio's marketplace of ideas, the Democrats believe their best recourse is to get rid of conservative hosts, by making it impractical for local stations to air their programs.

That's why Mr. Fineman's take on the issue is both curious and instructive. Rush Limbaugh's assertion that he is "equal time" for the liberal, drive-by media gets only a passing mention in the column. He also chides most of the Democratic presidential candidates for refusing to weigh in on the idea of a new Fairness Doctrine. Fineman suggests that most are reluctant (read: afraid) to take on powerful broadcast companies.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the Democrats running for president have a better understanding of the media than Mr. Fineman. The main-stream media, which includes the bulk of the nation's print, broadcast and cable outlets, is predominantly liberal, and still reaches large audiences every day. Indeed, talk radio is one of the few conservative outposts on a media landscape that overwhelmingly tilts toward the Democratic Party and its ideals. There is also some debate as to the real power of talk radio; conservative hosts almost universally supported the GOP in 2006, but the party lost control of both the House and Senate. Marginal Republican prospects for 2008 suggest that the influence of conservative talk radio has peaked, or that its power was overrated.

Still, Mr. Fineman's sympathies clearly lie with Congressional Democrats and their concern about talk radio's "misuse" of the public airwaves. Never mind that the original Fairness Doctrine was bad law, imposing prohibitive restrictions on broadcasters while giving a pass to print outlets and (eventually) cable and satellite channels as well. As a credentialed member of the "old media," Fineman would apparently welcome a return of broadcast "fairness" regulations, and a restoration of the liberal media monopoly that existed until a few years ago.

Attempts to restore the Fairness Doctrine aren't about media access; they've a thinly-veiled effort to silence voices that are critical of the Democratic Party and liberalism in general. That makes it a free speech issue, but you wouldn't know that by reading a certain columnist in Newsweek.


cold pizza said...

My vote for most BDS-affected columnist would have to be Maureen Dowd. There are no balanced viewpoints in the opinion section of my paper. Hmmm, I wonder if the fairness doctrine would have to apply to newspapers... -cp

Unknown said...

You know, I somehow left Dowd off the list. As for the Fairness Doctrine and newspapers, consider this: that copy of the paper that's delivered to your home travels over the public highways. Sounds like a rationale for government regulation to me.

Bill Lever said...

I'm with you on Robert Scheer. There are just no depths that he won't attempt. In May 2003, Stefan Sharkansky beautifully analyzed the whole formula in "Robert Scheer's Canard-o-matic". A classic.