Our own Congressman Greg Walden is carrying the conservative banner against attempts to reinstate the broadcasting "Fairness Doctrine."
At a press conference in Washington this week, the Oregon Republican and Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana, introduced the "Broadcaster Freedom Act," an attempt to legislatively block the Federal Communications Commission from re-imposing the doctrine, which required radio and TV programming to maintain at least a semblance of political balance.
"The founders would spin in their graves at the thought of the government censoring speech on many of today's radio and television stations," Walden said in a prepared statement on his website. "Yet that's just what some Democratic leaders seem to be after. Whether as a throwback to the old Fairness Doctrine or under a less controversial guise, any effort to exert government control over speech on the airwaves is an insult to the principles behind the First Amendment."
The Fairness Doctrine was instituted in 1949 and remained in force until 1985, when Ronald Reagan's FCC repealed it. The doctrine didn't require broadcasters to provide equal time to opposing views, simply to give opposing views some airtime.
Walden and other conservatives like to portray the doctrine as an infringement of freedom of speech and of the press, but that's a distortion. Under the Fairness Doctrine broadcasters were free to air any point of view they chose - they just were obliged to give a nod to other points of view.
In applying the First Amendment, American courts have long recognized a distinction between the print media - which pay for their own printing presses and their own paper - and broadcast media, which use a finite, publicly owned resource (the airwaves). The idea behind the Fairness Doctrine was to prevent broadcasters from using this resource to exclusively promote their own (or their advertisers') political agenda.
As the US Supreme Court put it in upholding the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine in 1969: "A [broadcast] licensee has no constitutional right ... to monopolize a ... frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others. ... It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount."
Despite the huffing and puffing from conservatives about "censorship," it's simply not true that the Fairness Doctrine censored anybody or prevented conservative opinions from being heard. "Indeed, the talk show format was born and flourished while the doctrine was in operation," writes Steve Rendall of the progressive watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "Before the doctrine was repealed, right-wing hosts frequently dominated talk show schedules, even in liberal cities, but none was ever muzzled. The Fairness Doctrine simply prohibited stations from broadcasting from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views."
Although a good logical and constitutional case can be made for renewing the Fairness Doctrine, it seems unlikely to happen any time soon. President-elect Barack Obama has said he has no interest in doing it, and Walden's bill has 130 co-sponsors.