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The Unfairness Doctrine

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By Dimitri Vassilaros
Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

Broadcasters should act before they're forced to react if Congress brings the so-called Fairness Doctrine back from the dead.

The Fairness Doctrine, which should be called The Gag Rule, will effectively silence talk shows on broadcast stations and the millions of Americans who tune in and talk about what was talked about. (Full disclosure: I host a Saturday evening talk show on NewsRadio 1020 KDKA.)

"There is a huge misconception, I think, in the public about what a Fairness Doctrine could possibly do," says Jeffrey McCall, communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana.

"I don't think people understand the repercussions that it would have on talk radio, on religious radio stations or the fact that even though it has been called the Fairness Doctrine, in many ways, it is not really a fair doctrine.

"It's called the Fairness Doctrine and it might sound good, and a lot of folks would say, 'Who can be against fairness?' But this really isn't an issue of discussing fairness. This is an issue of discussing whether the government should be forcing communicators to talk about things that they don't want to (talk about) or to advocate positions that they don't believe."

And that includes broadcast TV stations that have talk shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Barbara Walters and her co-hosts on "The View," he says. If controversial issues are aired, the respective stations will be mandated to air other programs that counterbalance whatever opinions were aired on the aforementioned shows.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and many other powerful members of Congress have stated clearly and emphatically that they support some form of The Gag Rule. With a nearly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, they should be taken at their word. It's a "Hush Rush" Limbaugh scheme, say some listeners of the syndicated radio talk show host.

The broadcast industry can sit back and hope that it's an empty threat or it can be proactive to ensure that the public will not stand for the effective silencing of free speech. Tens of thousands of calls by outraged listeners and viewers to congressional offices can cause any potential censor in Congress to keep censorship on hold.

Broadcast stations, hosts and consultants could join and start a campaign now -- with its own Web site, slogan, jargon ("The Gag Rule"), recorded spots, news releases and a will to win -- demanding that talk shows and, of course, the First Amendment not be silenced.

As a bonus, the industry could give show hosts a great deal of free publicity whenever the news media need supporters to interview or to engage in debates with apologists for state-sponsored censorship.

"If there is a move afoot to act proactively, I think it needs to go beyond just the talk radio hosts and the people who would take that particular side of the issue," says McCall.

"I think they need to find a broader cross section of supporters and people who are not in the talk business or not in the radio business.

"I think if all of the voices to say 'let's keep the Fairness Doctrine from coming back' ... are people who have a stake in it directly, I think it will lose some of its clout."

Broadcasters must start to speak up while they still can.

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