By JAY AMBROSE
When it began broadcasting back in 2004, Air America was supposed to be the great leftist hope, the radio network whose hosts would floor the dominating conservatives on political talk shows, especially Rush Limbaugh, the undisputed champion of the genre.
But things went from bad to worse as the network received low ratings in too few markets and was involved in a scandal because of borrowing money from a nonprofit organization. Lately, there have been rumors that it will soon declare bankruptcy. Those reports have been denied, though the network’s chief on-air personality, comedian Al Franken, concedes that cash-flow problems have kept him from being paid.
Having seemingly failed to knock Limbaugh out in the free market, where, oh where will the liberals turn? We already have the answer. If Democrats win control of Congress, the plan of some is to legislate radio time for liberals through reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine and thereby, in all likelihood, silencing Limbaugh and conservative friends. In other words, if speech gets too free to make you happy, bring your heel squarely, forcefully, unhesitatingly down on its head.
Let’s have some history here.
The Fairness Doctrine first went formally into effect in 1949 as a regulation of the Federal Communications Commission. The theory was that the limited airwaves belonged to the public and should be used to serve the public interest. The rule essentially said that stations had to provide opportunities for other sides to be heard if someone said something politically controversial on TV or radio, and that fines could be imposed and licenses yanked if the stations didn’t do it. The consequence, if not a total avoidance of strongly voiced views, was timidity in the face of hazards, a quietude strikingly at variance with this sprawling continental democracy of ours.
Then came the presidency of Ronald Reagan, with its understanding of how governmental controls so often diminish us and its trust in a free people to find their way without the instructions of know-it-all bureaucrats. In the ’80s, the administration dropped the regulation along with many others, and guess what? Talk radio began to flower. Other forces were at work, but there was no mistaking the effect of being free at last. Talk shows came to constitute something like one-fifth of all AM radio in less than a decade, after being something like 5 percent before the Fairness Doctrine was replaced by the principles inscribed in the First Amendment.
You would think believers in our democracy would rejoice in the burst of debate, information, questioning, preaching and pleading on public issues, but many liberals didn’t.
A chief reason was that the most popular hosts of these shows were conservatives. There is no major mystery why that’s the case. Millions of Americans happen to be conservative in at least some roughhewn way, and when they looked at the major TV networks and the most widely circulated newspapers and magazines, they didn’t see much of their point of view reflected. In talk radio, they gained a voice, frequently a rambunctious one that sometimes skipped over the niceties of the issues, but a voice that was subject to correction in the marketplace of ideas, where the false will generally get found out. That’s especially true in an era of the Internet, cable TV, satellite radio and other outlets that provide the public with a wider variety of news and opinion than available at any previous time in the history of humanity.
The conservative cause was also helped by personalities such as Limbaugh, who comes by his 15 million listeners a week not through accident, but because of endless energy, extraordinary alertness, quickness of mind and, most of all, a great, good humor and wit that the pompous among us miss and the leftist ideologues among us despise. He is funnier than Franken, and seriously, folks, Franken is not to be taken seriously on any level, least of all in his simplistic political formulations. The public isn’t having any on radio, at least not in sufficient numbers to make Air America a likely success, and so here come the liberals in Congress to fix things.
Democratic members of the House _ encouraged by any number of outspoken Democrats on the sidelines _ have already introduced legislation that would restore the Fairness Doctrine in such a way that radio stations carrying Limbaugh at great financial advantage would have to carry someone like Franken for an equal length of time at what would almost certainly be a great financial disadvantage. Hey, the stations might decide, let’s go with rock music _ or whatever _ because it’s easier and more profitable. If Democrats come to control Congress this fall, this anti-speech legislation could have a good chance of enactment, something to keep in mind when you enter a voting booth.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)