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Culture fight could endanger freedoms

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted March 22, 2004

Earlier this month the House of Representatives reacted to the Super Bowl halftime exhibition by passing a measure that would permit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase fines for indecency on the airwaves from $17,000 to $500,000. More importantly, after three fines, the license of the broadcast property would be in jeopardy.

This applies only to broadcast stations, not cable systems, satellite radio or television. Back when the FCC was started with the Federal Communications Act of 1934, there was only radio and the theory was - and is today with broadcast television - that the airwaves belong to the public. Therefore they can be regulated. Thus, ordinary radio and television stations have to apply for a license. In getting that license they make certain promises and if they fail to fulfill those promises their license is subject to challenge. In reality very few radio and television stations have been taken off the air since 1934.

Considering the filth that passes for radio and television programming today, many, many stations could be in jeopardy if this bill also gets passed in the Senate and is signed into law by the President. This is why Howard Stern is so worried. He says this is censorship. The sponsors of the legislation, which passed by a two to one margin in the House of Representatives say, "That's right. We mean to censor the likes of you, Howard."

Increasingly, stations have turned away from local programming. Stern has a whole group of stations with different owners who pick up his programming. Presumably if complaints are filed with different stations, he could get any of them knocked off the air if the FCC would actually be serious about enforcing the complaints.

The problem is that Rush Limbaugh is also worried about this legislation. On the face of it, that seems absurd. Limbaugh never says anything worse than a very occasional "damn it." The legislation passed by the House is aimed at the Janet Jackson episode and at filth purveyors like Stern. So why on earth would Limbaugh care?

Legislation like this sets a precedent. If stations can be shut down for the garbage spewed by Stern, what happens when President Hillary advocates, and gets passed a liberal Congress, legislation which allows complaints to be filed for hate speech. Hate speech could well be defined as exactly what Rush, Sean Hannity, Mike Reagan and others put out over the airwaves.

Talk radio is becoming stronger, not weaker. In California, talk radio petitions far outdistanced those of the paid operatives of Rep. Daryl Issa. The talk radio guys, working with an internet website, had enough petitions to get the recall of Gov. Gray Davis on the ballot without any help from Issa who spent millions to get 800,000 signatures while the radio talk show guys got 1.2 million.

Just a couple of weeks ago, California voters rejected a proposition put forth by the California Legislature to reduce the margin for approval of tax increases from two-thirds to 60 percent. It was ONLY the talk radio guys and gals who said no way. The voters agreed by a two-to-one margin.

Limbaugh, despite recent problems, continues to have a loyal audience. Hannity has a growing audience. Salem radio is now syndicating a number of popular talk shows and also owns broadcast properties in almost all of the major markets.

News Talk formats saved AM. AM stations were on the brink of extinction until talk radio came along. It came along because the so-called "fairness doctrine" was repealed during the Reagan Administration. Media was also deregulated. That came with a price. The price was Howard Stern and his filthy local counterparts.

The idea was that people could be their masters. If they didn't think a station was appropriate they would tune elsewhere. The market would rule. Others would have government step in to regulate. Those who advocate more government say that filth affects the culture of a nation and so even if you don't listen to it, it coarsens a nation.

Those who just want the government to stay out of it as much as possible, say so what? They say if Stern and company pump out filth onto the airwaves then it is up to private citizens to oppose them. They have no problem with Rev. Jerry Falwell crusading against Stern. They just don't want the power of the government to shut down Stern.

As much as I welcome the belated reaction to the halftime gyrations at the Super Bowl, I do think we have to be concerned with how we carry forth this precedent. I know this. The liberals have been looking for a way to shut down conservative talk radio, which outnumbers liberal talk radio sixty-to-one. That is not a typo. That is not supposed to be s-i-x to o-n-e. It is 60:1. Liberals would like to re-instate the "fairness doctrine" so anything controversial would require equal time, which would absolutely shut down talk radio. Conservatives have promised a first class fight.

Obviously, in a Congress such as we have now, even if John Kerry would manage to win the Presidency, an effort to pass a bill on "hate speech" as applied to broadcast stations would not fly. But if we get President Hillary, we will get a liberal Congress as well. The first instinct of the left is always to shut down its opposition so it won't have to contend with it in future years. So it behooves us to proceed very carefully. Clearly we need to do something if we are ever to regain the culture. How we do that without endangering our freedoms is a delicate balance.

If we could trust the Republicans to fight "hate speech" I wouldn't worry. But we can't. Exactly what we should do is a matter above my pay grade. This is one time when it probably is a good idea that the Senate will take its time to act. We need time to think and to think carefully.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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