The Magazine

Shut Up, They Explained

From the September 29, 2003 issue: Congress draws a bead on talk radio.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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CHANGES IN Federal Communications Commission regulations don't normally capture national attention. But a decision last June has people who worry about the growing influence of Big Media in a tizzy. Bill Clinton frets that "monolithic control over local media will reduce the diversity of information, opinion, and entertainment people get." William Safire calls it an "abomination." Jesse Jackson warns "the FCC's vote . . . will ultimately remove our rights of expression in programming. . . . The battle is not over." Ralph Nader is, as always, "very concerned."

It all culminated in a Senate vote on September 16 to repeal part of the decision by the FCC to relax media ownership rules. The old rules prohibit a company from owning television stations that reach more than 35 percent of homes nationwide; the new rules allow up to 45 percent. (The FCC, in the same 3-2 vote led by chairman Michael Powell, also abolished regulations that prohibited a company from owning a newspaper and a television station in the same area, but there was insufficient support in the Senate to repeal this cross-ownership provision.)

But the Senate vote is only the beginning of a much larger campaign for some who have been itching to re-regulate television and radio for the last two decades. By tweaking media consolidation rules, the FCC reopened a debate that started at the commission's creation in 1934. The "fairness doctrine," a set of rules requiring that radio and television broadcast stations present a variety of opposing views, was in effect from 1945 until 1987 (when Reagan's FCC repealed it), and the scuffle over the FCC's latest decision has reinvigorated efforts to bring it back.

Three days after the FCC announced the new rules back in June, Maurice Hinchey, Democratic congressman from New York, released a statement headlined "Hinchey Vows to Reclaim Airwaves for Public." Repealing the FCC's action is not enough, he says. In the coming weeks, he plans to introduce a bill that would reinstate the fairness doctrine not as a mere FCC rule, but as legislation. Though the fairness doctrine is often referred to as the "equal time rule," Hinchey says his bill would not explicitly require equal time, only "more diverse" views on all stations.

The concept behind the fairness doctrine seems innocuous. But in practice, Hinchey's bill would get the FCC into the business of dictating content, and owners of radio and television stations would be forced to broadcast opinions they don't espouse. Aside from a host of First Amendment concerns, critics of the doctrine say it could actually result in more uniformity, not more diversity. If every station offers the same pair of "opposing viewpoints" in order to fulfill its obligations to the FCC, stations will become indistinguishable.

The FCC, which licenses broadcasters to use discrete portions of the broadcast spectrum, has a responsibility to promote the "widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources," according to its charter. The broadcast spectrum is a limited public resource, say defenders of the fairness doctrine, and to ensure that it meets the demands of its charter, the FCC must react to this scarcity by monitoring content.

But it turns out we have a lot more spectrum than we thought, and a lot less demand for it than anticipated in 1934, during the fledgling days of television. The fairness doctrine was crafted before cable television, digital television, and the Internet relieved demand for spectrum space. The existing rules predicated on scarcity are simply outdated, rendered irrelevant by unforeseen technological advances, according to Powell's FCC.

In 1980, there were 75 all-talk radio stations in the country. Now there are more than 1,300. Hinchey dismisses the proliferation of media outlets, saying the "alleged existence of a great diversity" is undermined by the fact that the outlets "are increasingly controlled by a limited number of organizations and people."

Those 1,300 talk stations, nearly all born since the repeal of the fairness doctrine and nearly all right-leaning--with the exception of Pacifica Radio--will be in the thick of the battle over Hinchey's bill. The legislation--which has been called the "Crush Rush" bill (most notably by the king of conservative talk himself, Rush Limbaugh)--would hurt conservative radio the most. But it would also have a chilling effect on political coverage on stations with other formats, says Braden Cox, technology counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, making broadcasters reluctant to address controversial issues for fear of running afoul of the FCC. After all, radio and television stations depend on the FCC for their existence, and can't afford to antagonize the entity that renews their licenses.