Speaking Up for Talk Radio

The mainstream media likes to brag about bringing us all the news that’s fit to print. Remember these recent stories?

Public schools in California next year will be required to teach 5-year-olds that homosexuality is normal and healthy — and that kids pick their "gender."

Television meteorologist John Coleman, who founded the Weather Channel, published a scathing article dismissing global warming as "the greatest scam in history."

Rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq fell in October to the lowest level in 21 months, after peaking in June before the "surge" in forces got under way.

Draw a blank? It could be because the mainstream media mostly ignored these stories, or briefed them on page A13. To hear about them, you likely had to rely on talk radio.

Buried speech isn’t free.

That’s one more blessing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: Ordinary parents, taxpayers and voters still can get news that matters to their lives. Talk radio remains one of few places to hear a trustworthy voice probing subjects of consequence — whether Rush Limbaugh or Alan Colmes is our cup of tea.

And no thanks to some in Washington.

Just this summer, liberals such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin complained that conservative media bias killed amnesty for illegal immigrants. Their remedy for the non-existent problem: resurrect the misnamed Fairness Doctrine to force the same "balance" on government-licensed broadcasters that had stifled public affairs programming until 20 years ago.

Talk radio began to prepare its audience for battle, but the liberals fell silent, biding their time. Perhaps they’re calculating it’ll be easier to clamp down on free speech once Democrats take back the White House and strengthen their hold on Congress.

Not everyone got the memo about keeping quiet. An Oregon newspaper, the Bend Bulletin, quotes a spokesman for Rep. Maurice Hinchey saying the New York Democrat will fold a new Fairness Doctrine into legislation to limit consolidation of media ownership.

Washington then could impose on talk radio what liberals couldn’t earn strong ratings for in the free marketplace of ideas: equal time for their voices and tradition-mocking views.

Such a post-election scenario is “an existential threat to talk radio as we know it,” says Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican.

Pence, determined to confound the Democrats’ stealth strategy, wants a House vote before the election on the Broadcaster Freedom Act. That’s the bill he sponsored to forbid future presidents from re-imposing Fairness Doctrine-style constraints on broadcasters unless authorized by an act of Congress.

Speaker Pelosi, the House’s top Democrat, has bottled up the Broadcaster Freedom Act. So on Oct. 17, Pence filed what lawmakers call a discharge petition, seeking signatures from 218 members (a simple majority) to mandate an up-or-down vote on his bill.

Pence needs 24 more signatures. So far, 194 of 200 Republicans have signed. But not one of 233 Democrats has had the courage to break ranks in favor of debate, amendments and a vote.

The stakes are huge, says Pence, a former radio talker himself. If liberals succeed in setting the standards for political content on the public airwaves, he warns, "free talk radio would wither on the vine." Most stations would switch to country music or another format to escape a tangle of red tape dictated by Washington.

Pence’s prediction is based on past performance: In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission fashioned a rule that broadcast radio and television stations — a fraction of today’s media mix — must "afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial matters of public importance."

Station owners and managers eventually retreated to bland programming to avoid all the paperwork, costly legal challenges and political pressure from the White House down. In 1987, the FCC rescinded the Fairness Doctrine, calling it a “government intrusion” serving neither the Constitution nor the public. Little wonder that, since then, the number of talk radio stations more than tripled — to 1,400.

The standoff is awkward for Democrats, since 107 of them joined Pence and the Republicans in June to forbid the FCC from reviving the Fairness Doctrine on its own. Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who supports the Broadcaster Freedom Act, told Roll Call newspaper he’s not certain the bill warrants bypassing procedure and bucking leadership.

But Republican strategists think Pence has a shot at breaking the logjam by arguing the merits of unfettered talk radio to Altmire and other Democratic freshmen in Republican-leaning districts.

"They don’t want to be the reason some day,” as one House aide puts it, “that their district’s favorite talk shows are gone."

Ken McIntyre is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.