The Corner

Gesturing at ‘Fairness’

Since last Saturday’s murders, the pundit class has buzzed with calls to “tone down” our “incendiary rhetoric.” But is the political class doing anything about it?

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Rep. Louise Slaugther (D., N.Y.) said that the FCC is “just not working anymore.” This was after she connected the Tucscon shooting to Sharron Angle’s words, “Second Amendment remedies,” and “incendiary” rhetoric more generally. She said, “What I’d like to see is if we could all get together on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, and really talk about what we can do to cool down the country.” She added, “Part of that has to be what they’re hearing over the airwaves.” This has been widely interpreted as a call for a revived Fairness Doctrine, or something similar.

But while Slaughter framed her proposal as a response to the murders, the Fairness Doctrine has been one of the foci of her career all along. As she told Bill Moyers in a 2004 interview, her first act after being elected to Congress in 1986 was to attempt to organize others to override — this gets complicated — President Reagan’s veto of Congress’s vote to codify the Fairness Doctrine (the vote was intended to override the FCC commissioners’ abolition of the rule). She has been a noted supporter of attempts to exert more control and political balance over the airwaves since.

Although conservatives certainly have a right to be upset by Slaughters’ implicit connection of Loughner to right-wing talk radio (all available evidence says there is in fact none), it’s actually extremely unlikely that Slaughter will be able to do anything about it.

 The Fairness Doctrine or a similar policy could be revived in one of only two ways: either a vote by a majority of the FCC commissioners (which would only effect the public airwaves), or an act of Congress. The FCC has not taken serious steps to revive the Fairness Doctrine, and is unlikely to: it would immediately embroil itself in controversy and lawsuits and the likely result would actually be less power for the FCC. Congress — especially with the new Republican House majority — is infinitely unlikely to vote a new Fairness Doctrine into law. 

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