Beyond the Fairness Doctrine: Barack Obama Says He Wouldn't Reintroduce the Federal Communications Commission's Most Notorious Speech-Squashing Regulation. but There Are More Mundane Reasons to Fear the Next FCC

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FIRST THE GOOD NEWS: The fairness doctrine is still dead, and it probably will stay dead even if Barack Obama becomes president. The doctrine, a rule that gave the government the power to punish broadcasters for being insufficiently balanced, was killed off 21 years ago. It isn't likely to return, despite persistent rumors that the regulation's rotting corpse will crawl from its coffin and disembowel Rush Limbaugh.

But you can't blame talk radio fans for worrying. When the Federal Communications Commission enforced the doctrine, from 1949 to 1987, it was a convenient club for politicians and interest groups itching to silence their critics. During the last couple of years, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democrats have publicly pined for its return, a change that would effectively require any outlet that transmits Sean Hannity's show to either devote a chunk of its schedule to rebutting him or, more likely, dial back its political programs altogether and air a jock or a psychiatrist instead. Pelosi's party hasn't come close to restoring the rule; but they've handed a powerful political weapon to the opposition: Every time the Dems raise the subject, right-wing radio shows and blogs broadcast the news to an angry conservative base. In a year when rank-and-file Republicans are uncomfortable with their party's presidential nominee, it's a potent way to persuade them to hold their noses and vote for John McCain.

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And so the conservative weekly Human Events warns that "liberals are chafing at the bit, waiting for regime change in Washington to give them the ability to reinstate the 'fairness doctrine.'" Michael Medved, the movie critic and AM talker, announces in towering capital letters that "THOSE RADIO HOSTS WHO CLAIM THAT MCCAIN AND HIS DEMOCRATIC RIVALS ARE 'INTERCHANGEABLE' SHOULD NOT IGNORE THIS CRUCIAL ISSUE." And Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media--an organization that never shied from wielding the fairness doctrine against the left--frets that "if Obama captures the White House and gets the opportunity to appoint the FCC chairman, liberals would then have a 3-2 majority capable of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine through administrative action, without the need for congressional approval."

It won't happen, says Obama. On June 25, in a savvy political move, his press secretary sent an email to the industry journal Broadcast & Cable. Deftly deflating the scare, the secretary stated flatly that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters."

Now the bad news. There's a host of other broadcast regulations that Obama has not foresworn. In the worst-case scenario, they suggest a world where the FCC creates intrusive new rules by fiat, meddles more with the content of stations' programs, and uses the pending extensions of broadband access as an opportunity to put its paws on the Internet. At a time when cultural production has been exploding, fueled by increasingly diverse and participatory new media, we would be stepping back toward the days when the broadcast media were a centralized and cozy public-private partnership.

Such threats might not rile up the red-state base the way the fairness doctrine does, in part because it's far from clear that the GOP would be any better. Under its current chairman, Republican Kevin Martin, the FCC has been no friend to either free enterprise or free speech. It has sharply increased federal restrictions on the media, with a sanctimonious crusade against "indecent" broadcasting; new regulations for satellite radio, wireless phones, and other communications industries; and an attempt to assert unprecedented powers over cable TV. "Martin is the most regulatory Republican FCC chairman in decades," says Adam Thierer, director of the anti-censorship Center for Digital Media Freedom. "He wants to control speech and will use whatever tools he has to get there."

An Obama FCC might mean still more steps toward reregulation. …