Free Speech in the Free Market
Tim Rutten, writing for the LA Times made several interesting observations regarding talk radio, MoveOn.org, and the way congress has responded to commentary coming from each.
[T]he House and Senate censured the liberal activist group MoveOn.org for taking out a newspaper advertisement that characterized Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, as “General Betray Us.” Now congressional Democrats are seeking a similar expression of disapproval for radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who they allege insulted servicemen and women opposed to the Iraq war by calling them “phony soldiers.” (Limbaugh has a baroque explanation of what he actually meant by those words, but you probably have to be a regular listener to his show to follow it.)
There’s a temptation to dismiss all this as hollow foolishness — like most of the things Congress does with ease. Beyond all this preposterous posturing, though, there are a couple of things worth considering because both really do involve free speech and your right to hear it.
Now, the MoveOn.org ad was patently offensive, a particularly unconscionable slur on any honorable American in uniform, let alone a guy who commanded the 101st Airborne. It was, however, rejected out of hand as an expression of loony narrow-mindedness by most Americans who oppose the war. Nobody, in other words, needed a congressional coalition — not even a bipartisan one — to instruct them on how to think. Similarly, it’s possible that the Democratic leadership is sufficiently clueless not to have noticed until now that Limbaugh regularly goes on the air and says cruel and offensive things about people of all sorts. Most Americans with a pulse, however, are abundantly clear on the fact that Rush talks a pretty mean game.
To this point, I agree with Mr. Rutten. It should be beneath congress to spend time passing useless resolutions condemning private citizens or groups for expressing opinions that some congressmen disagree with. Outrageous and crazy things are printed, spoken, and blogged on a daily basis. Should congress pass resolutions for each and every one of these statements? Of course not. They work for us and they have a job to do.
But unfortunately for those of us who value our First Amendment rights, there are certain politicians who wish to do more than pass resolutions condemning speech they disagree with by bringing back the so-called “fairness doctrine.”
ASK most Americans what the Fairness Doctrine is and they’ll correctly tell you it’s a regulation that requires broadcasters to air both sides of an issue. Tell them that it hasn’t been enforced since 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission essentially deregulated broadcasting and abolished the doctrine, and they’ll look at you like you’re nuts. That is, however, the situation, and much that is of current consequence flows from it — including the existence of contemporary talk radio of which Limbaugh is the avatar.
In America today, talk radio is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party’s conservative wing. GOP partisans will argue that’s because deregulation subjected radio to the discipline of the marketplace, and, when that market expressed itself through ratings, it stated an overwhelming preference for conservative talk-show hosts. That’s a good, Reagan Era argument, but Democrats and their allies see different forces at work. They point to the fact that deregulation freed big corporations to acquire hundreds of radio stations at about the same time that satellite transmission made syndicated radio programming decisively cheaper than locally produced shows. It was an easy call for the corporate station managers, who quickly filled their airtime with cheap, syndicated programming. Most of the first wave of syndicated programming was talk by conservative commentators, who’d long been shut out — or felt they were shut out — of mainstream media.
Talk radio is “owned” by the G.O.P.? Ridiculous! Yes, it’s true that the vast majority of talk show hosts are conservative but so what? The reason why conservative talk has been successful is because there is a market for conservative views. The prevailing theory seems to be that conservative talk is successful because it is one of the few places where the alternative views (alternative to the left wing MSM) are expressed. This could explain why conservative talk has succeeded where progressive talk has failed. The fact that a few large media corporations own most of the radio stations is irrelevant (clearly, Rutten also believes that antitrust laws are legitimate). If there was a stronger market for progressive views, these large media corporations would not hesitate to drop the conservatives in favor of progressives. The radio industry’s master is the bottom line, not the G.O.P. or anyone else for that matter.
If the FCC were to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio would no longer be a part of the GOP base. That’s why Democratic senators like California’s Dianne Feinstein and Illinois’ Richard J. Durbin have been talking about prodding the agency into doing that since last spring. It’s also why, late Monday, 200 Republican representatives notified the House Rules Committee that they intended to seek a “petition of discharge” for the “Broadcaster Freedom Act.” That bill, written by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former radio talk-show host, would prohibit the FCC from ever reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. Under the House rules, if Pence can get 218 signatories to the petition, the Democratic leadership must let it come to the floor for a vote.
That’s what’s really at stake in all the posturing over MoveOn .org and Rush Limbaugh. In the minds of both parties, it’s not so much a fight over speech as it is over the right kind of speech. The sad irony is that the only voice that isn’t being heard in all this talk over talk is that of the public, which, after all, owns the airwaves over which this struggle is being waged.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Rutten is right: talk radio is “owned” by the G.O.P. base. Again, I have to say: so what? Rutten major common error in this piece is this notion that the public “owns the airwaves” (except for the illegitimate use of taxpayer money to fund both NPR and PBS). The entire argument for government imposed regulations on broadcasting rests on this notion that the airwaves are owned by everyone. If the airwaves are owned by everyone, then that also means that the airwaves are owned by no one. If the airwaves are owned by no one, then the government assumes that the government rightly fills that vacuum to own the airwaves.
But the public does not own the airwaves; the people who pay the money to transmit their programming do. The way I see ownership of the airwaves should be similar to ownership of any other kind of property: a radio station owner determines the frequency s/he wants to use and s/he registers the frequency with the county so no other station can use his or her frequency.
In the real world, it’s a little more complicated than that but the fact remains that radio station owners pay for their programming from advertisers and donations (donations are more common for religious programming) NOT public funds. If the G.O.P. base truly has spent the money to keep these shows on the air, I say more power to them. What would stop the DNC from doing the same?
If we buy into this myth of the public airwaves, we do so at our own peril. If the FCC can demand that talk shows give equal time for all issues (assuming that is even possible), what is to stop congress from setting up similar unelected bodies to impose similar regulations on newspapers, magazines, and blogs? Newspapers are delivered on public roads, magazines are delivered through the U.S. mail, and the internet is transmitted over utility lines which are often also regulated by the government!
I agree with Mr. Rutten that the voice of the public is not well represented on the radio but what are we willing to sacrifice in the name of fairness? Despite my frustration with the MSM and talk radio, we live in a time where we have so many other options to express our views and listen to unconventional views of others. We now have the internet which gives us access to videos, podcasts, and blogs. The government should be the last place for us to deem the ultimate arbiter of fairness.