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Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is a regular guest on some of the conservative talk radio shows. The term “talk radio” is often used synonymously with “conservative talk radio,” but in fact there are other formats. I remember growing up in suburban Boston, and people used to listen to a radio host named Paul Benzaquin, something of a radio legend in Boston, whose afternoon show consisted of people calling in to discuss various news topics. In those days this format was a novelty.
In recent years, though, the commercial talk format with the most success is in fact conservative talk. This has bothered liberal talkers who, for whatever reasons, can’t seem to garner the audiences that the conservative hosts do. And since audiences roughly equal revenue, most of the sponsorship dollars accrue to conservative talk radio. In this particular arena of ideas, one side wins.
Clearly, the conservative point of view did not prevail in the most recent national elections. To the contrary, conservatives and conservatism were sent packing. It looks like the biggest shift since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. If anything, the conservative – or at least the Republican – members of Congress look cowed and lost.
Yet Sen. DeMint felt compelled to add an amendment to the District of Columbia voting rights bill that would prohibit from reinstatement of the old Fairness Doctrine. DeMint is calculating that getting DC a voting member of Congress is so much more important to its partisans than reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, that the DC bill will pass even with the DeMint amendment.
The Fairness Doctrine, repealed in 1985 after a controversial history, required equal (though not equal time) and balanced presentation of points of view within radio programs. You can date the rise of conservative talk radio to shortly after repeal.
Conservatives view restoration of the Fairness Doctrine as a gambit to neutralize them by diluting their radio format. Beyond the Fairness Doctrine, there are other ways the liberal Obama government could try and neutralize conservative talk radio. These include rules to reduce ownership concentration of radio stations, which in turn enables wider and easier syndication of popular hosts.
In the clash of ideas – and it is a clash – I am always skeptical when one side tries to limit the ability of the opposite side to state its case. Those that would limit anyone’s freedom of speech simply have never read the Constitution. Or if they did, they didn’t understand it (to paraphrase Harry Truman’s crack about Richard Nixon).
Yet the move to re-regulate radio has its adherents: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) offered an amendment that also passed. It would require the FCC to take whatever action is necessary to "encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership.” Whatever that means.
To an astonishing degree, radio – and all of the older forms of media – has competition unimagined back in 1985. The Internet really has changed everything such that there is no point of view whose proponents can’t make widely available. Liberal blogging is at least as potent a force as conservative radio. People can get opinions from literally countless sources now, radio being merely one of them. Media ownership is nothing if not diversified.
As a political and constitutional matter, the Obama administration ought to come out strongly against any attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, either directly via the FCC or indirectly via ownership or diversity rules. As a constitutional issue, it is unlikely to pass muster. As a political issue, the administration would risk looking petty and hypocritical given that the president’s own weekly radio address and other communications are distributed widely through the Internet.