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More Fairness Doctrine Nonsense

As if his suggestion that Americans had "every right to fear" the fictional death panels wasn't distracting enough, Charles Grassley has further stoked the Republican base by reawakening that classic conservative bogeyman: the "fairness doctrine," a defunct FCC provision that neither the Democratic administration nor congress has any interest in bringing back. Grassley's latest concern comes from the appointment of Mark Lloyd, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, as the FCC's chief diversity officer. In 2007, Lloyd co-authored a report called "The Structural Imbalances of Talk Radio," finding that "91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive." The report doesn't call for a reinstatement of the doctrine, but Grassley is nonetheless troubled. Here's an excerpt of the letter he sent to FCC chair Julius Genachowski on last week:

This paper argued that radio programming was currently "imbalanced" and that there are "serious questions about whether the companies licensed to broadcast over the public airwaves are serving the listening needs of all Americans." Mr. Lloyd's paper suggests three options to remedy the "imbalance" in political talk radio, including (1) restoring caps on commercial radio station ownership, (2) ensure greater accountability in licensing, and (3) require owners who fail to enforce public interest ownership obligations to pay a fee. While these remedies seem innocuous on their face, hidden within the paper are some stark revelations.


I am concerned that despite his statements that the Fairness Doctrine is unnecessary, Mr. Lloyd supports a backdoor method of furthering the goals of the Fairness Doctrine by other means. Accordingly, I ask that you clarify and reaffirm your commitment to me to oppose any reincarnation of the Fairness Doctrine.

Shortly after Obama's election, when fairness doctrine anxiety was at its peak, I reported that hardly anyone the right had pegged as a proponent had any interest in bringing the measure back. One of my sources was Mark Lloyd. Here's what he told me when I talked to him about the alleged movement to reinstate the doctrine: "I don't think there's any movement at all. You described it accurately, it was a panic. This is not something that we recommended when we published our report when talked about the problems of talk radio. We don't support it at all."

More specifically, Grassley worries that the proposals in Lloyd's paper amount to a tacit reinstatement of the doctrine. But they do little of the sort. First, they limit the number of stations one company can own in a given market, to encourage that a greater array of voices reach local audiences. They also recommend that broadcast licensees fill out a standard form showing how their programs are serving the public interest and that they make that information available online for its listeners. As it reads, that proposal does sound fairly innocuous--it's likely that even the most slanted radio programs can make the case that their coverage is serving the greater good. If the station is unable to provide that information, the report suggests that it should pay a fee to support public broadcasting. Taken as a whole, these measures would theoretically diversify radio markets, but it's still a long way from forcing stations to give equal sides to a given issue, as conservatives fear.

When I wrote my piece, I had a theory about why this non-issue keeps coming up:

Democrats may scratch their heads over why this has lately become a right-wing obsession, but the paranoia is not without precedent. The prospect of being in the opposition often brings out the worst in conservatives--paranoia and self-pity. Plus, when the conservative coalition seems threatened, there's no better way to unify the party than scaring up liberal bogeymen.

It doesn't matter to Grassley that Lloyd is against the Fairness Doctrine, that FCC Chair Genachowski is against it, and that the Democrats in the House and Senate are against it. Feeling threatened about being caught in the middle of a tug-of-war over health care reform, Grassley seemingly just wanted to pull the rhetorical equivalent of saying, "Look! Over there!" and then running the other way.