Limbaugh on the Fairness Doctrine
“I, Rush Limbaugh, the poster boy of free speech, am being gang muzzled.”
The broadcaster was crying censorship (Limbaugh Letter, 10/93) over congressional efforts in 1993 to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine — which he labeled “The Hush Rush Bill,” “The Get Limbaugh Act” and “The Rush Elimination Act of 1993.” Limbaugh’s daily on-air crusade generated thousands of calls to Washington, and helped derail congressional action. As usual, Limbaugh’s followers were mobilized through misinformation and deception.
The Fairness Doctrine–in operation from 1949 until abolished in 1987 by Ronald Reagan’s deregulation-oriented Federal Communications Commission–calls on broadcasters, as a condition of getting their licenses from the FCC, to cover some controversial issues in their community, and to do so by offering some balancing views.
Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine can hardly be a “Hush Rush” plan aimed at silencing him, since it was broadly and actively supported on Capitol Hill well before anyone in Washington had ever heard of Limbaugh. In 1987 (when he was still the host of a local show in Sacramento), a bill to inscribe the Fairness Doctrine in federal law passed the House by 3 to 1, and the Senate by nearly 2 to 1, but it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. Voting for the bill were such “commie-libs” as Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
In 1989 (when Limbaugh was just emerging as a national host), the Fairness Doctrine easily passed the House again, but didn’t proceed further as President George Bush threatened to veto it. In 1991, hearings were again held on the doctrine, but interest waned due to Bush’s ongoing veto threat. Yet when the same Fairness Doctrine emerged in 1993, with a new president who might sign it, Limbaugh egotistically portrayed it as nothing but a “Hush Rush Law.” And his followers believed him.
And they believed him when he claimed the Fairness Doctrine was aimed at censoring conservative talkshow hosts (Limbaugh TV show, 9/17/93): “It’s the latest attempt by the United States Congress to legislate against me, and talk radio hosts.” Remarked Limbaugh (Limbaugh Letter, 10/93): “Why is ‘fairness’ so needed now? Because there’s too much conservatism out there.” In reality, not one doctrine decision issued by the FCC had ever concerned itself with talkshows. Indeed, the talk-show format was born, and flourished, while the doctrine was in operation. Right-wing hosts often dominated the talkshows, even in liberal cities, but none was ever muzzled.
The Fairness Doctrine doesn’t require that each program be internally balanced, or mandate “equal time”: It would not require that balance in the overall program line-up be anything close to 50/50. It merely prohibits a station from blasting away day after day from one perspective, without any opposing views.
It would not “hush Rush,” but it may get stations that offer only a constant diet of Limbaugh and fellow right-wingers to diversify their line-up a bit. Limbaugh was uttering nonsense when he claimed (Limbaugh Letter, 10/93) that to balance his show under the Fairness Doctrine, station owners “will have to go out and get two liberal shows. Or maybe three. Even three might not be enough.”
Various citizen groups have used the Fairness Doctrine as a tool to expand speech and debate — not restrict it. For example, it prevents stations from allowing only one side to be heard on ballot measures. (A study found that the abolition of the doctrine had disastrous effects for democratic debate in 1992 ballot measures.) Over the years, the doctrine has been supported by hundreds of grassroots groups across the political spectrum, including the ACLU, National Rifle Association and the right-wing Accuracy In Media.
“The Fairness Doctrine isn’t going to take Rush Limbaugh off the air,” remarked Larry King (The Rush Limbaugh Story, Paul Colford). “Be fair: What’s wrong with that? If I were Rush, I would want a liberal host following my show.”
Limbaugh argued on his TV show (9/17/93) that there should be no government fairness standards on broadcasters, since there are none on the print press: “You can buy a newspaper, and start it all you want, and they wouldn’t dare try to do this [establish a Fairness Doctrine].”
He misses the key difference: If you want to compete with Limbaugh’s partisan publication in the marketplace of ideas, you can simply start your own publication right next to his. But if you set up your own competing broadcast program right next to a Limbaugh station on the radio dial, without acquiring a government license, you will be prosecuted. Broadcast frequencies are limited; printing presses are not. That’s the legal–and practical–underpinning of the Fairness Doctrine.