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Bum Rush

Obama's secret plan to muzzle talk radio. Very, very secret.

Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and other friends have spent the past year screaming about the horrors of Barack Obama. And, while it's true that they talked ad nauseam about socialism and the Weathermen and Jeremiah Wright, careful listeners would have noticed a recurring theme of anxiety: that Obama was going to use the newly acquired levers of government to destroy them. Specifically, conservative paranoia over the possible reinstatement of the "fairness doctrine," a defunct policy requiring that broadcasters allow opposing points of view to be heard over the airwaves, has reached a fevered pitch. In September, George Will was warning his readers that, "[u]nless McCain is president, the government will reinstate the ... 'fairness doctrine.'" In October, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page chimed in, predicting that under the spooky-sounding "liberal supermajority," the fairness doctrine was "likely to be reimposed," with the goal being "to shut down talk radio and other voices of political opposition." And, two weeks before the election, the New York Post blasted: "Dems Get Set to Muzzle the Right."

On Election Day, conservatives found a new bogeyman in Senator Chuck Schumer, after Fox News host Bill Hemmer cornered him about the issue on the air. Schumer just smirked: "I think we should all try to be fair and balanced, don't you?" Rush Limbaugh seized on Schumer's comments as evidence that the Democrats would "do everything they can" to bring the doctrine back. Two days after the election, National Review's Peter Kirsanow tried to rally the troops to preempt the return of the policy. "Waiting until Inauguration Day to get geared up is too late. By that time the Fairness Doctrine Express will be at full steam--wavering Democrats will be pressed to support the new Democratic president, weak-kneed Republicans will want to display comity, the mainstream media will not be saddened to see talk radio annihilated and much of the public will be too enraptured by Obama's Camelot inauguration to notice or care."

To figure out who was causing such agitation, I went searching for the proponents of the fairness doctrine. I looked at Obama's position--and it turns out that he doesn't want the policy reinstated. Then I called the array of Democratic congressmen who had been tagged by conservatives as doctrine proponents. But they all denied any intention to push for its reinstatement. As some of the world's great egotists, it's not surprising that Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly believe they would be the first political prisoners interned in an Obama administration. But, the more I searched for actual evidence of the doctrine's return, the more I had to conclude that Schumer was just messing with their heads.

The fairness doctrine was adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, under the argument that the airwaves were a finite public resource. License holders were considered public trustees, with a responsibility to present opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. From the beginning, the doctrine was imprecise and difficult to enforce, and, by 1987, the policy was repealed.

It has become obvious by now that the biggest beneficiaries of the doctrine's demise were the conservative media. Last year, a study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that 91 percent of weekday talk radio is conservative, compared with just 9 percent that is progressive. Far from establishing an unencumbered marketplace of ideas, the free-market approach, critics complain, edged most voices out of the debate.

It's no wonder, then, that conservatives fear the fairness doctrine's return and busily document any favorable mention of the policy by Democrats. One of the most recent remarks that fueled the paranoia occurred in June, when John Gizzi, a reporter from the conservative magazine Human Events, asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi if she would allow a vote on a bill called the Broadcaster Freedom Act, which was introduced last year by former talk-show host turned House member Mike Pence in an attempt to permanently outlaw the reinstatement of the policy. Pelosi said she wouldn't, mentioning New York Representative Louise Slaughter as an active proponent of reinstating the fairness doctrine. But Slaughter, like many other media-reform advocates, has shifted focus away from the doctrine in recent years, instead working to rein in the consolidation of media ownership. Shortly after the Human Events piece surfaced, a Democratic leadership staffer called Pelosi's office to ask if the mention indicated that the speaker had plans to move on new legislation promoting the doctrine. Pelosi's staff, according to that aide, confirmed that she did not. And, even if Pelosi were to allow the legislation to move forward, another staffer says, she would not have the Democratic support to get it passed.

Conservatives also focus on the 2005 effort by Democratic Representative Maurice Hinchey of New York to introduce a bill that would have reinstated the doctrine. But that effort went nowhere. At the time, Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, explained to the congressman that the measure did not have the support of the media-reform community. Schwartzman doubts Hinchey will try again. In fact, the last time a revival of the doctrine seemed possible was in 1993. Limbaugh's declaration that he was being "gang-muzzled" unleashed a public outcry against the bill, and Congress backed down.

Today, the doctrine has almost no support from media-reform advocates. According to Mark Lloyd, co-author of the CAP report, "I don't think there's any movement [to restore the fairness doctrine] at all. ... We don't support it. " Craig Aaron of the media-reform group FreePress says, "[I]n reality, the fairness doctrine as it existed is never ever coming back."

Responses from the offices of most of the Democrats who have been pegged as fairness-doctrine proponents--Schumer, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, and others--have ranged from a firm denial that the issue is a priority at all to disbelief at finding themselves at the center of a manufactured controversy. "Somebody plucked this out of the clear blue sky," says the press secretary for New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat who was questioned about the issue by a conservative radio-show host a few weeks ago. "This is a completely made- up issue." Senator Durbin's press secretary says that Durbin has "no plans, no language, no nothing. He was asked in a hallway last year, he gave his personal view"--that the American people were served well under the doctrine--"and it's all been blown out of proportion." In fact, as recently as last year, the House voted by an overwhelming three-to-one margin to temporarily prohibit the FCC from imposing the dead policy; 113 Democrats voted to support the move.

Meanwhile, the president-elect himself has said in no uncertain terms that he does "not support reimposing the fairness doctrine on broadcasters." Republican paranoia is nothing more than that.

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.

Take last year, when Congress failed to pass immigration reform. Some House members blamed Rush Limbaugh for whipping his listeners into such an anti-amnesty frenzy that would-be Republican supporters of the bill jumped ship. Conservatives were staring down a deep chasm. Their coalition looked vulnerable and ineffective. Then, Senator James Inhofe remembered that he had overheard Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton conspiring in a Capitol Hill elevator--not quite the place where those ladies usually do their strategic planning--to deliver a "legislative fix" to the Limbaugh problem. First Inhofe said that he had overheard them "the other day"; later, he said that it was three years prior. No matter. Shortly thereafter, Pence introduced his bill to permanently defeat the doctrine. Invoking fear of the doctrine turned out to be a quick fix after all: The bill never got out of committee, but it quickly gained the support of more than 200 congressional Republicans--and countless dittoheads.

Marin Cogan is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008 issue of the magazine.