Hot Air: Fair and Balanced

Originally published in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, this five part series examines the shock jock phenomenon… Colorado-style

Most recent talk radio controversies have not involved federal censorship. Contrary to right-wing radio hosts’ cries of big-government supression, the feds aren’t bunkered down in an undisclosed location monitoring their shows. FCC sanctions levied for rules violations are precipitated by public complaints and investigations. The trend has been for activist groups to band together and force action through petitions and boycotts. For Steven Zansberg, a pre-eminent attorney of First Amendment rights who has represented talk radio hosts and stations on free speech and libel cases, it boils down to an economic issue: Offended citizens vote with their pocketbooks and pressure advertisers directly rather than seek government censorship.

One solution under consideration calls for Congress to reign in offensive speech by restoring the Fairness Doctrine, a rule that required broadcasters to present controversial subjects in a “fair and balanced” manner. The rule was established by the FCC in 1949 and enforced for nearly 40 years, although it was never codified into law. The rationale was to prohibit a handful of companies from creating more media outlets that would serve as single-agenda mouthpieces. There was also concern that scant, post-WWII-era broadcast frequencies would result in fewer outlets, limiting the public discourse.

In 1987, the Reagan administration successfully pushed to deregulate the media industry and eliminated the doctrine, claiming that it violated free speech rights. In 2000, further safeguards were repealed that ensured individuals or groups targeted in on-air attacks or campaign editorials were given an opportunity to respond on the air.

Today, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio and 2008 presidential candidate, and a few left-leaning members of Congress contend that differing perspectives and minority views are not represented due to a current “scarcity” caused by mega-corporations dominating media markets.

Zansberg, who works for the D.C. firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, is skeptical.

Ownership consolidation doesn’t necessary translate into narrow programming. In Colorado, Clear Channel owns both the liberal 760 AM Air America affiliate and conservative stations. If there is money to be made, the media-holding companies will exploit it regardless of the political ideology promoted on-air. Public broadcasting and the Internet also serve the community’s needs for diversity, he adds.

Read the companion chapters of the “Hot Air” series here. In our last segment of this series tomorrow, we discover why conservative talk radio is considered the “new propaganda.

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