Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., announced last week on the Sunday talk shows that she's thinking about resuscitating the "fairness doctrine" for the purposes of adding some balance to AM talk radio.
She was quickly joined by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and John Kerry, D-Mass. Their fear, they say, is that talk radio leans too far to the right. And despite the fact that the left has tried —and failed — to come up with viable alternatives to Rush Limbaugh and company, they'd like to impose "balance" on radio stations with the hammer of the federal government.
Of course, achieving balance will be difficult. Balance is subjective.
I'm a libertarian. Generally speaking, I'm conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues. If I were to get my own radio show, who would the station have to put on after me for "balance"? Someone economically liberal and socially conservative? What about someone far to the right like Michael Savage? Who is his counterpart on the left? And who determines what radio content is biased enough to require countervailing programming?
To Feinstein, Durbin and Kerry, these nuances aren't the issue. The issue is that mean people (read: citizens) are saying mean things about them (read: criticizing their policies and their performances as elected officials). They know bias when they hear it. Presumably, they'd create some sort of commission within the FCC made of people who think like they do, to enforce their notion of balance.
This is all thinly-disguised posturing for what's really bothering the senators: They don't like that people are allowed to criticize them on public airwaves.
This is why they continue to pass ever more stringent "campaign finance reform" laws, which at heart are really just laws that prevent people and organizations from criticizing politicians. Supporters of campaign finance reform talk about the corrupting influence of money in politics, but the truth of the matter is that it takes money to criticize a member of Congress in a forum where anyone's going to hear it. Take away the ability of citizens to pool their money to buy television and radio time, and you effectively take away their ability to criticize politicians, at least in a manner that anyone will notice.
Last week, the Supreme Court rightfully struck down one of the more onerous portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. This was the provision that, remarkably, prohibited organizations from criticizing politicians at the one time of year that it's most important to air criticisms of them — just before an election. There was predictable outrage on Capitol Hill.
Public approval ratings for Congress are at historic lows right now. But they've never been that high, generally hovering somewhere between the mid-30s to low 40s. Despite widespread public dissatisfaction with Congress, much of the public seems to love their individual senator or congressman. In most election years, incumbents running for re-election win 90 to 95 percent of the time.
That's because members of Congress have gamed the system in ways that make it almost impossible for anyone to take their jobs from them, no matter how poorly they perform.
Campaign finance laws make it difficult for challengers to amass the money necessary to overcome the name recognition incumbents enjoy. Gerrymandering ensures members of Congress run for re-election in districts stuffed with wide majorities of voters from their own party. Complicated access rules keep third-party candidates from even appearing on the ballot. Pork projects enable a member to siphon funds from the federal treasury to bribe constituents with federal research grants, government jobs and wasteful vanity projects that inevitably end up bearing a given congressman's name. In general, dethroning a sitting congressman — even an unpopular one — is an arduous, uphill slog.
But even all of this isn't enough. Now that they have ensured their own job security, have gotten to vote on their own pay raises (regardless of performance) and have stacked the deck against anyone who dares to challenge them, these politicians now want to pass laws exempting them from criticism, as well. They're not only entitled a permanent grip on elected office, they should get to rule without ever having their feelings hurt, too. So no mean attack ads just before an election. If talk radio says hurtful things about you, pass a law ensuring that a friendlier personality comes in the next hour to say nice things about you.
Last year, Sen. John McCain even introduced a bill that would allow the federal government to regulate blogs. We can't have any medium that Congress doesn't have the power to regulate and control, now can we?
Just so Sens, Feinstein, Kerry and Durbin don't find me guilty of bias, too, I'd add that this sense of privilege is all too bipartisan. President Bush, for example, is notoriously insulated from criticism. Bush said in an interview with Fox News' Brit Hume a few years ago that he doesn't even read the newspaper. Instead, he gets his news in the form of filtered briefings from his aides.
Bush's public events are also meticulously planned. So-called "town hall" meetings are pre-populated with people carefully screened by the president's handlers. Questions are pre-planned. Anyone insufficiently deferential isn't allowed anywhere near the event. The Secret Service also routinely shunts critics far outside of the president's earshot (or just arrests them) before he ever arrives at his public appearances, sparing him the indignity of actually having to answer questions from people who might disagree with his policies.
In my last column, I called for laws protecting the right of citizens to record police officers on the job, citing the critical principle that we be free to hold the government that serves us accountable. The same principle applies to our politicians.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.