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The Democrats drive for the 'fairness doctrine'

A soon-to-be-released study, commissioned by groups allied with the Democrats, finds that conservative dominance of the radio airwaves is growing. Can the Democrats change that by reinstating the "fairness doctrine"?
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As the ten Republican presidential candidates debate this week on their favorite cable network – Fox News – Capitol Hill Democrats are planning a new drive for access elsewhere, on talk radio and local broadcast TV.

The goal? To level the media playing field in time for the 2008 election.

Talk radio has long been a crucial power base for conservatives and Republicans; local TV stations are not.

They shy away from public-affairs programming altogether, and yet they rake in ever-larger wads of cash on political advertising.

Democrats have two media-access goals.

One is to prod local broadcast television and radio stations to renew their atrophied commitment to producing and airing their own public affairs programming – shows that Democrats think would at least give them a chance to be heard. Some Democrats want to require stations to give free time for campaign debates, and even free campaign advertising as part of the stations’ “public service” licensing requirement.

The Democrats’ more ambitious (and longer-range) goal is to reinstate the “fairness doctrine.”

The fairness doctrine
For decades, the doctrine effectively kept partisan shows (the Rush Limbaughs of the world) off the airwaves by requiring radio and television stations to make comparable time available – free – for opposing views.

The doctrine was abandoned in 1987; Limbaugh hit the syndicated national airwaves the next year.

A soon-to-be-released study, commissioned by groups allied with the Democrats, finds that conservative dominance of the radio airwaves is growing.

According to researchers, more than 85 percent of talk-radio programming leans to the right – at least by the researchers’ definition.

Leaders of the industry, such as Limbaugh, contend they are merely acting to counter the dominance of what he calls the “drive by” mainstream media. But on radio, it’s hard to tell who is driving by whom – and conservatives are the mainstream.

Talk radio has become big business, and taking on major broadcasting companies is not something Democrats – or any politicians – are all that eager to do.

Among Democratic presidential candidates, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio regularly talks about the issue – when he is asked about it on the road. I surveyed the leading contenders on the topic, and got only silence as a response.

But some senior House Democrats are interested, I am told, and Kucinich himself is planning to hold hearings on the question of whether the broadcasters are properly fulfilling their public service obligations under federal communications law.

On the Senate side, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has quietly been urging the party leadership to take up the same question.

A misuse of public airwaves?
The Democrats are moving carefully in public, but in private they fret at their lack of clout – and at what they see as a misuse of the public airwaves.  Limbaugh’s rebuttal is simple: that Democrats and liberals just can’t make the sale in the marketplace.

As for the new efforts to review broadcast rules, “I don’t think it’s ever going to succeed,” Limbaugh told his listeners this week. But that didn’t keep him from sounding an alarm. The Democrats are pursuing a “pure Stalinist tactic,” he declared, “to silence or shut people like me up.”

There’s little chance of that.

The Democrats just want to sound some alarms themselves. Former talk show host Al Franken, now running for the U.S. Senate in his home state of Minnesota, has his own suggestion for reform.

“You shouldn’t be able to lie on the air,” he told me. “You can’t utter obscenities in a broadcast, so why should you be able to lie? You should be fined for lying.”

Federal fines for lying on the air? As a way to fill the federal treasury, it makes perfect sense.