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Talk Radio's Last Stand?

Talk radio "shock jocks" are fretting publicly about the supposed return of the long-defunct Fairness Doctrine.
 
 
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Editor's note: Make sure to check out Rory O'Connor's new book, " Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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The email alert read "Breaking from Newsmax.com," the conservative online news site that also publishes Newsmax Magazine . One item in particular caught my attention -- "Special: Will President Obama Ban O'Reilly, Rush?"

One click, however, reveals this "breaking" news is simply old wine poured into a "special" new anti-Obama bottle: a ridiculous recycled report titled "Talk Radio's Last Stand," offered with a subscription to Newsmax magazine and a "Dynamo Emergency World Band Radio" -- all for just $35!

Leading hard-right conservatives, led by their talk radio "shock jock" troops, have been worrying aloud about the supposed return of the long-defunct Fairness Doctrine ever since their stunning success last year in defeating bipartisan immigration reform. The latest salvo is the Newsmax report, headlined "Battle for Talk Radio: Powerful Foes Want to End the Gabfest," which cleverly combines the usual talk radio tropes of pugnacity and victimization. The text of the "special offer" supplies the details:

"The 2008 election has yet to be decided, but one thing is clear: If the Democrats win the White House, expect an all-out attack on talk radio. Political talk, as we know it, could end. If they win, Rush, Imus, Savage, Beck, and dozens of other major hosts will be muzzled by using federal regulations to control political talk. So, what's their plan of attack?"

As Newsmax sees it, "leading liberals in Congress, the Democratic presidential candidates, and even some Republicans speak openly of their plans to end conservative talk radio using federal regulations. Their weapon: a revived Fairness Doctrine, which would once again require stations to air divergent points of view -- a clever ruse that makes station owners leery of airing controversial talk-radio hosts, fearing lawsuits and federal sanctions. With a new Fairness Doctrine, you could see many top conservative radio hosts canned."

As further evidence, Newsmax offers "an exclusive interview with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly," assuring us there is "no question" a plan is being hatched. "The far-left kooks will try, but they will fail," O'Reilly says.

Well, the far-right kooks like O'Reilly are certainly succeeding once again in ginning up outrage and false controversy -- while simultaneously pushing up their ratings. As detailed in my new book, "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio," this putative threat to the First Amendment simply isn't real -- nor is the far-right's existential fear that conservative talk radio will somehow be wiped from the media landscape.

What is real is that the Reagan-era demise of the doctrine was in fact "the decision that launched a thousand lips," as Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Puzzanghera once phrased it. "The move is widely credited with triggering the explosive growth of political talk radio." But when a handful of politicians mused about its reinstatement "after conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage helped torpedo a major immigration bill," Puzzanghera noted, the result was an "armada of opposition on the airwaves, Internet blogs and in Washington, where broadcasters have joined with Republicans to fight what they call an attempt to zip their lips."

Most progressives are of course suspicious of the right's newfound "issue," and many, like radio talk show host Ed Schultz, rightly characterize talk of a reinstated Fairness Doctrine as a "straw man" invented by conservatives. "They have 450 right-wing talkers in America," Schultz says. "They all read off the same talking points."

As the trade journal Broadcasting and Cable noted, the Fairness Doctrine had "long been the province of communications-law texts and history books." The original doctrine required broadcasters -- who must obtain a license to use the publicly owned airwaves -- to present issues of public importance in a balanced manner. Since the doctrine was an attempt to ensure that coverage of controversial issues by broadcasters be balanced and fair, and since it hadn't been enforced in two decades, the sudden and fervent talk show opposition to it seemed odd at first blush. After all, don't conservatives regularly claim an interest in being "fair and balanced"?

Nevertheless, merely the perceived possibility of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine has led many conservative commentators to paint that possibility in near-apocalyptic terms. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, called it "an assault on the First Amendment" and accused Democrats of wanting to wipe out conservative talk radio. "They want to kill it because every time we have an extended conversation with the American people, liberalism falls apart and its ideas collapse," Gingrich explained. Limbaugh, America's No. 1 radio talker, went so far as to suggest that, instead of imposing a "Fairness Doctrine," perhaps a "Truth Doctrine" should be imposed to control all news outlets other than talk radio.

Other conservative voices, such as Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily.com, followed Limbaugh's lead and began warning explicitly of an impending "war on talk radio." In an article in the August 2007 issue of WND's Whistleblower magazine, Farah wrote, "Though most Americans aren't yet aware of it, talk radio -- from Rush Limbaugh to the local talker in small-town America -- is under major attack." Farah drew a direct link between talk radio's success in mobilizing opinion against the immigration bill and what he and other conservatives saw as a frontal assault on their main medium of expression. "And no wonder: Last month radio talkers presided over a minor American revolution when they urged millions of citizens to successfully oppose the immigration/amnesty bill that the president and both political parties had been pushing relentlessly," Farah wrote. "It went down in flames -- a devastating blow to the political establishment."

"Now it's revenge time," Farah concluded, articulating the conventional conservative wisdom. "If radio talkers, in conjunction with the Internet, can mobilize Americans to oppose the political elite with regard to immigration, what kind of effect might they have on voters during the critically important November 2008 presidential election just around the corner? The fact is, powerful forces in and out of politics feel extremely threatened by this one part of the mass media that overwhelmingly champions traditional American values. They want talk radio crippled before it does any more 'damage.'"

Now that Barack Obama is set to be the Democratic nominee, conservatives are trying to pin the allegedly impending "assault" on talk radio directly on him. But even a cursory look at the elements of the Newsmax "special report" demonstrates that this supposedly current "controversy" is comprised mostly of leftovers such as "the Don Imus controversy" and is focused more on Hillary Clinton ("Laura Ingraham's dire forecast about a Hillary Clinton presidency") than Barack Obama:

  • Why the Don Imus controversy was the first skirmish in a bigger war
  • Hillary Clinton's secret role in getting Imus fired
  • Why Imus calls Hillary "Satan" and vows revenge
  • Talker Glenn Beck's chilling prediction for freedom of speech
  • Why liberals can't win ratings in radio -- but conservatives do
  • Naming names: powerful Democrats who favor the Fairness Doctrine
  • Media Matters' "blacklist" of conservative talkers
  • National Public Radio's tilt to the left
  • Talk radio and the "new McCarthyism"
  • GOP Rep. Mike Pence's campaign to stop the Fairness Doctrine
  • Clear Channel's strategic moves to "appease" Democrats
  • The supposed adversary that saved Air America
  • The lawsuit that threatens political talk radio
  • How Democrats can re-impose the Doctrine -- without congressional action

Not surprisingly, this concerted conservative focus on the possible return of the Fairness Doctrine seems more devoted to stirring up the base than combating any real danger. Most informed political observers believe there is scant possibility that the fusty doctrine will ever be re-imposed -- and even less chance that if it were, talk radio would be "eliminated." But to conservatives such as Limbaugh, Farah and the Newsmax team, the battle for talk radio is actually existential, about everything, or at least everything that matters: "America is short on leadership right now," Farah says. "Radio talk show hosts, who every day belt out the truth that no one else in the broadcast world dares to speak, are the closest thing today's Americans have to real leadership. Eliminate talk radio, and America goes down the tubes."

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is the author of "Shock Jocks: Hate Speech and Talk Radio" (AlterNet Books, 2008). O'Connor also writes the Media Is a Plural blog.

 
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