Fairness Doctrine vote proves conservative noise machine still strong as an ox but twice as dumb

by Harold Feld, Tales from the Sausage Factory

Conservatives take joy where they can these days, so no surprise they are busy patting themselves on the back for attaching to the DC Voting Rights Bill an amendment to prevent the FCC from reviving the “Fairness Doctrine.” It makes an interesting case study on a number of levels. First, how does the conservative echo chamber still manage to get a Democratic Senate to vote for an item pushed by conservative talk radio 87-11? Were the situation reversed, and liberal Senators wanted to attach some piece of useless legislation promoted by Air America, such as a ban on banging your head against the wall until you fall unconscious, conservatives would take joy in crushing it just to show the bleeding heart Liberal wussies who rules the roost.

Of course, some of it may be the piece of legislative jujitsu pulled off by Senator Durbin, which modified the amendment to reenforce the overall regulatory power of the FCC to promote diversity. All in all, this makes an excellent case study on how Rush and his crew are leading the GOP back to glory while the Ds stay focused on being effective.

Details below . . .

For some time now, the Fairness Doctrine has been the favorite boogeyman of the conservative punditry and their chief rallying cry. Well, I suppose if I had programming like that (i.e. which appeals to an increasingly undesirable advertising demographic consisting of broke angry white guys over 50 driven primarily by rage) I'd also be scared sh**less of people hearing any alternative. Still, to mangle a phrase, “the crappy flee where no one persueth.” Everyone from Obama on down has said they have no intention of reviving the Fairness Doctrine. But, as this profile of young conservatives in the Washington Post demonstrates, conservatives long ago gave up on “the power of ideas” and now rely solely on trying to provoke outrage. And the Fairness Doctrine, combining as it does the specter of Big Government dictating content and a theoretical assault on conservative radio by requiring some reasonable airing of opposing views, is tailor-made to provoke outrage. Even better, like the old joke about the mouse statue that keeps elephants out of the peanut factory, the fact that no one actually wants to bring it back makes it very easy to claim you defeated it.

Still, given handy majorities in both the House and Senate, you would expect an effort to amend the D.C. Voting Rights Act with an utterly unrelated amendment barring the FCC from reviving the Fairness Doctrine would not get past the Rules Committee, let alone actually get a majority. After all, if the tussle over ARRA and the posturing over the budget teaches anything, it is that the Republican leadership has no interest in compromising to get legislation they want passed. (Or, as Rush told CPAC last week, “To us, bipartisanship is them being forced to agree with us after we politically have cleaned their clocks and beaten them. And that has to be what we're focused on.”) But not only did the Rules Committee deem it of sufficient relevance to the DC Voting Rights Act to allow it to come to the floor as an amendment, but it passed 87-11.

It is tempting to regard this as evidence of the power still latent in the conservative noise machine, and there is some truth to that. As we saw during the stimulus fight, progressives remain new to the concept of staying engaged, whereas the conservatives have spent over 15 years conditioning the news media and members of Congress to kowtow to their demands. Thus, despite consistent polling evidence that the majority of Americans don't particularly care what the conservative punditry say and the Dems can defy them with impunity, we keep seeing the chattering class acting as if the conservatives had won the election and questioning why the Democrats why they think they can go ahead and keep their campaign promises.

But while the conservative noise machine remains strong, it also remains incredibly stupid. Senator Dick Durbin substituted an amendment for the original DeMint Amendment. Both ban the FCC from reviving the Fairness Doctrine (which, again, no one actually wants to do). But the Durbin Amendment actually strengthens the FCC's authority to regulate on issues progressives do care about. Here's the language of the DeMint Amendment:

2 SEC. 9. FAIRNESS DOCTRINE PROHIBITED.
(a) LIMITATION ON GENERAL POWERS: FAIRNESS DOCTRINE.—Title III of the Communications Act of 1934 is amended by inserting after section 303 (47 U.S.C. 303) the following new section:

SEC. 303A. LIMITATION ON GENERAL POWERS: FAIRNESS DOCTRINE.
Notwithstanding section 303 or any other provision of this Act or any other Act authorizing the Commission to prescribe rules, regulations, policies, doctrines, standards, guidelines, or other requirements, the Commission shall not have the authority to prescribe any rule, regulation, policy, doctrine, standard, guideline, or other requirement that has the purpose or effect of reinstating or repromulgating (in whole or in part)—
(1) the requirement that broadcasters present or ascertain opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance, commonly referred to as the ‘Fairness Doctrine’, as repealed in In re Complaint of Syracuse Peace Council against Television Station WTVH, Syracuse New York, 2 FCC Rcd. 5043 (1987); or
(2) any similar requirement that broadcasters meet programming quotas or guidelines for issues of public importance.

This would not only have eliminated the old Fairness Doctrine, but pretty much any effort to impose public interest obligations of any kind (especially once the D.C. Circuit got its activist little mitts on it). But the Durbin Amendment supplements this and “clarifies” it by adding:

SEC. 9. FCC AUTHORITIES.
(a) CLARIFICATION OF GENERAL POWERS.— Title III of the Communications Act of 1934 is amended by inserting after section 303 (47 U.S.C. 303) the following new section:
SEC. 303B. CLARIFICATION OF GENERAL POWERS.
(a) CERTAIN AFFIRMATIVE ACTIONS REQUIRED.—
The Commission shall take actions to encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership and to ensure that broadcast station licenses are used in the public interest.
(b) CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in section 303A shall be construed to limit the authority of the Commission regarding matters unrelated to a requirement that broadcasters present or ascertain opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance.

So the DeMint Amendment prevents the FCC from reviving the Fairness Doctrine as it existed when repealed by Syracuse Peace Council in 1987 — which nobody wanted to revive anyway — and in exchange creates an affirmative obligation to “encourage and promote diversity” and “ensure that broadcast station licenses are used in the public interest.” Way to go Conservatives! You sure showed those Liberal wussies whose boss! Or, to quote my favorite conservative, Eric Cartman: “You guys are hella stupid.”

Mind you, I think it probably would have been better in the long run to simply squash this amendment (and other such efforts) rather than give the conservatives bragging rights. And — assuming this passes, which is not at all certain — it may have some impact on the pending litigation around the FCC's localism and public file proceedings. Still, it makes an interesting case study in the way in which the conservative movement has reduced itself to exulting form over substance for the pleasure of claiming victory and stoking its base, while the Democrats remain focused on actually achieving things.

article originally published at http://www.wetmachine.com/item/1475.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey