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Out of the muck, under fire

The old saying about freedom of the press runs that it can be exercised by anyone who happens to own one. That’s something of a limiting factor in the world of newspapers, large presses being expensive things to own. But in the larger world of print publishing, the field is much more widely open. Ridenbaugh Press is a small business, but we own our own presses – printers – and publish on paper, as well as on line.

Beyond that, of course, the glory of the Internet is its inexpensiveness; anyone can publish there at slight cost, and almost without limit. The ability of one person to publish in print or on line is not really blocked (other than in the world of larger newspaper enterprises) by the fact that someone else is already doing so.

The airwaves are different. Frequencies are limited in quantity, are deemed to be owned in common by all of us (publicly owned), and have to be apportioned out. The renewed discussion about the fairness doctrine, tossed out with the trash a couple of decades ago, is about that. Much of the discussion has been lopsided: Barely had the idea been brought into view before a critical piling on began. (A Google search will give you an idea of that.) And since one of the national leaders in the debate, Representative Greg Walden, is from Oregon, and others (such as Idaho Senator Larry Craig) have been speaking out on it, a few words here seem appropriate.

The fairness doctrine, which required that politics and public affairs discussion on air be handled in a balanced way, is built on the idea that no one should be able to dominate the airwaves, that they were too important, and too influential, to allow any small group (or large one for that matter) to seize. (First stop in a traditional military coup d’etat? Seize the radio stations.) Most of the broadcast law this nation used for half a century was based on the same idea. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve tossed out the principle of many voices and many owners, and replaced it with the principle that access to the airwaves is for sale – to fewer and fewer owners, who consistently have replaced many voices with fewer and fewer, most of which tend to reflect their view of the world and support their political aims.

That is what a renewed fairness doctrine would seek to (in part) turn around, and why you’re seeing such a visible battle against it – a round of blasts much more visible than the proponents of the doctrine have been able to muster.

We’ve seen the arguments – anyone paying attention would have – against fairness doctrine. Walden’s statement that “It is clearly evident to me that attempts to restore the Fairness Doctrine are based in attempts to reduce public speech, not enhance it” is astonishingly wrong. How can that description possibly relate – other than as misdirection – to an effort to increase variety and balance in a medium where political discourse is dominated 90% or more by one narrow sliver of ideology?

The practical political effect of what we have now, as anyone with access to a radio dial knows, is that somewhere around 90% of political radio talk is conservative, a percentage higher in the many parts of the country where liberal money hasn’t been sufficient to break into the market, less so in such places as Portland and Seattle where liberal talk is aired.

How did it get that way? Some of it came from genuine radio skills, such as Rush Limbaugh brought to the field (more in his earlier years than now). Some of it came from jumping in first, seeing the opportunity first. And there’s definitely a substantial and marketable audience for conservative talk. But that’s not all. The political leanings of broadcast owners who decide what their stations air are far from irrelevant, along with revenue from like-minded business owners and others. Both of these being trends were magnified by the wholesale buyout of urban radio stations coast to coast, buyouts by the hundreds, programmed (where they weren’t already) into solid blocks, all day/all night, of Rush and conservative counterparts. Along with prompt rejections for anyone left of center trying (and many did, some of them proficient in the field) to enter the field: Once you’ve got 10 hours of conservative talk, you don’t want to jar people by throwing a couple hours of liberal chatter into the mix. (Works the same way, in reverse, on Air America stations.) So what “liberal radio” would the marketplace ever have the option to choose? (Note to those who would argue that the marketplace chooses only conservative talk: Many of the liberal stations, including Portland’s KPOJ-AM, are doing respectably well in the ratings.) Only the supremely naive could really think that “the market” and nothing else has given us what we have.

So we get a handful of national gabbers, nearly all aligned to one ideology and supportive of one party, dominating political talk overwhelmingly on a whole medium. Does that matter?

It does. Along with the 1996 telecommunications act, it has contributed to the evisceration of local radio news, once a vital part of the news mix. It has wiped out local voices coast to coast. It has given the people who want to tune in to what they think of as their “local” radio station the impression that there’s only one way to think – no need to go anywhere else, we’ve got all the answers here, folks. (That applies to liberal talk no less than conservative talk.) It contributes to our political sifting – we no longer see shades or nuance, no longer see different-minded people of good will, only good and evil, only hard-edged conservatism or hard-edged liberalism: We get really ugly tribalism from political talk radio. Not to mention the slime and muck – almost always issued without challenge, seldom responded to much less corrected – spread across the land these days.

It comes from all-conservative or all-liberal talk.

Imagine for a moment a radio station that followed three hours of Rush Limbaugh with three hours of Ed Schultz, or two of Randi Rhodes with two of Laura Ingraham? Such programming might be less appealing to the marketing department, but it could do something useful for our political discourse. Might even get people to think.

There are few perfect human solutions to anything; the fairness doctrine wasn’t perfect in the bygone days, and it wouldn’t be perfect now. Better solutions should be found.

But the problem is real, and the quality and quantity of the attacks against the fairness doctrine are one useful indicator of need for better answers. If you need another, just turn on talk radio.

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