In celebrating the eloquence and essential truths in our Declaration of Independence this long weekend, we should remember that our national leaders were politicians — not always idealistic and straight.
Throughout history our politicians have demonstrated a penchant for passing laws and promoting policies with seductive, but deviously misleading, titles.
So it was a couple decades after Independence that the fifth Congress enacted the “Sedition Act of 1798.” It had nothing to do with punishing sedition. It was intended only to muzzle newspaper publishers who were chronically critical of President John Adams.
So it is again in 2007 when members of the 110th Congress talk of enacting “Fairness Doctrine” legislation. It has nothing to do with fairness. It is intended only to muzzle right-wing talk-radio hosts who are chronically critical of Democrats in Congress.
Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage are the targeted, unfair poster-boys-of-the-airways whose syndicated programs have stimulated a sudden surge of congressional interest in forcing “fairness” on talk radio.
This concept of a “Fairness Doctrine” is a flawed federal policy relic from early days of radio when the Federal Communications Commission decided to force broadcast owners to air opposing viewpoints.
From the day it was implemented, enforced FCC “fairness” violated the free-speech rights of broadcasters. It took the FCC more than 50 years before it officially killed the doctrine in 1987, acknowledging that enforced “fairness” was “unconstitutional on its face.”
For more than a half century, then, the commission, Congress and the federal courts deprived broadcasters the rights of free expression that newspaper owners had enjoyed since 1800 — the year the original “sedition” law died.
As Independence Day approached, a study — startling in its findings — was released by the Center for American Progress asserting that 91% of talk-show programming was “conservative.” The study found only 9% to be liberal — or “progressive,” to use the word the center prefers.
Since the study came out, three influential Democratic senators, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, have expressed favor for Fairness Doctrine legislation.
Durbin said: “I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides … they’re in a better position to make a decision. Feinstein and Kerry expressed similar views, shared widely among Democrats in both congressional houses. Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a New York Democrat, has said he will soon reintroduce a bill mis-titled the “Media Ownership Reform Act” that will include a mandate reestablishing the Fairness Doctrine.
Even as support for fairness seemed to be building, a majority of House members took a wiser course, voting last week to bar the FCC from using any taxpayer dollars to reinstitute the doctrine.
The idea of any agency of government deciding what is “fair” in the news media is silly on its face, as well as unconstitutional. It makes no sense. Can anybody imagine a “fairness” decision adjudicated by the Clinton-Gore administration that would be judged “fair” by the Bush-Cheney presidency? And a commission selected to reflect the political “fairness” of both administrations would be in a food fight before the table was set for its inaugural luncheon.
It is difficult to grasp what there is about the Limbaugh-Hannity-Savage syndrome that so frightens Democrats. Despite the rants of Rush and the railing of Sean, Democrats won both houses of Congress in 2006.
Despite their blasts at Bill Clinton during eight years in office that included the Lewinsky scandal, he left the presidency with approval ratings more than double those of the present conservative incumbent.
Despite constant attacks on Al Gore by Rush and Sean in 2000, the then-vice president clearly won the popular vote for president. The Supreme Court, not talk radio, put George Bush in the White House. And Gore’s approval ratings today, despite continuing right-wing radio needling, more than triple those of the president.
Yes, Sean and Rush have large and loyal audiences. They may vote just as Rush and Sean recommend. But most folks in our media-saturated world, with a multiplicity of sources of information, are uninfluenced by right-wing radio.
As David Obey, the Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, said, “Rush and Sean are just about as important in the scheme of things as Paris Hilton.”
Were Congressman James Madison, the father of the First Amendment, around today, I suspect he would tell folks who want to hush Rush and silence Sean simply to reach out and turn the dial.
He also would remind them of his own old-fashioned idea, enunciated in the First Amendment. It begins with the words: “Congress shall make no law …”
John Seigenthaler is founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.