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Speaking up for freedom of speech

EVERY American loves free speech -- for themselves. We think the other guy should shut up and sit down.

We all believe our own views are frank and provocative, things that need to be said. The other guy’s ideas are deceitful and offensive, usually the product of mental deficiency, corruption or simply a malevolent nature.

When it comes to speech, winnowing the wheat from the chaff clearly is no task for the timid, so perhaps we all should breathe a collective sigh of relief over the United States Congress’ willingness to accept the arduous duty of arbitrating what now constitutes appropriate political speech.

Recently, for example, the House and Senate censured the liberal activist group MoveOn .org for taking out a newspaper advertisement that characterized Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, as “General Betray Us.” Now congressional Democrats are seeking a similar expression of disapproval for radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who they allege insulted servicemen and women opposed to the Iraq war by calling them “phony soldiers.” (Limbaugh has a baroque explanation of what he actually meant by those words, but you probably have to be a regular listener to his show to follow it.)

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There’s a temptation to dismiss all this as hollow foolishness -- like most of the things Congress does with ease. Beyond all this preposterous posturing, though, there are a couple of things worth considering because both really do involve free speech and your right to hear it.

Now, the MoveOn.org ad was patently offensive, a particularly unconscionable slur on any honorable American in uniform, let alone a guy who commanded the 101st Airborne. It was, however, rejected out of hand as an expression of loony narrow-mindedness by most Americans who oppose the war. Nobody, in other words, needed a congressional coalition -- not even a bipartisan one -- to instruct them on how to think. Similarly, it’s possible that the Democratic leadership is sufficiently clueless not to have noticed until now that Limbaugh regularly goes on the air and says cruel and offensive things about people of all sorts. Most Americans with a pulse, however, are abundantly clear on the fact that Rush talks a pretty mean game.

Congress, in other words, has no legitimate role to play in the regulation of political speech -- and both MoveOn.org and Limbaugh were engaged in that constitutionally protected activity. The House and Senate simply make themselves appear more ridiculous than usual when they overreach in this silly fashion.

So what is all this really about?

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Partly, it’s an attempt to capture and hold the rhetorical high ground in our endless and increasingly sterile non-debate over the debacle in Iraq. The war, however, has congressional attention mostly because of its domestic implications, and the clubfooted dance over Petraeus and Limbaugh is about free speech only insofar as that speech will have an effect on the next election.

And that brings us to what’s really on the congressional mind, which is talk radio and the Fairness Doctrine.

ASK most Americans what the Fairness Doctrine is and they’ll correctly tell you it’s a regulation that requires broadcasters to air both sides of an issue. Tell them that it hasn’t been enforced since 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission essentially deregulated broadcasting and abolished the doctrine, and they’ll look at you like you’re nuts. That is, however, the situation, and much that is of current consequence flows from it -- including the existence of contemporary talk radio of which Limbaugh is the avatar.

In America today, talk radio is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party’s conservative wing. GOP partisans will argue that’s because deregulation subjected radio to the discipline of the marketplace, and, when that market expressed itself through ratings, it stated an overwhelming preference for conservative talk-show hosts. That’s a good, Reagan Era argument, but Democrats and their allies see different forces at work. They point to the fact that deregulation freed big corporations to acquire hundreds of radio stations at about the same time that satellite transmission made syndicated radio programming decisively cheaper than locally produced shows. It was an easy call for the corporate station managers, who quickly filled their airtime with cheap, syndicated programming. Most of the first wave of syndicated programming was talk by conservative commentators, who’d long been shut out -- or felt they were shut out -- of mainstream media.

As the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism put it in a recent analysis: “The major reason for the rise of national talk personalities like Limbaugh . . . was a change in the cost of national satellite distribution. Syndicated programming meant that stations no longer had to develop their own local talent. Instead, they could simply bring in national voices that had already proven themselves in other markets for less money. Those national voices belonged to the most successful talk hosts, many of whom were conservatives.”

As a consequence, nine out of every 10 minutes of radio talk broadcast in America on any given day now takes a conservative view. That’s true whatever the proclivities of the local market. San Francisco, for example, is probably the most liberal city in America, the only place in the country where Fidel Castro could drop into any corner bar and be assured of finding at least one person who’d buy him a drink. Yet 90% of all the talk radio broadcast in the Bay Area has conservative politics.

That’s why a conservative talk show host like Hugh Hewitt, writing this week about the congressional move to censure Limbaugh, could post this on his blog: “An attack on Rush is an attack on the GOP base.”

If the FCC were to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio would no longer be a part of the GOP base. That’s why Democratic senators like California’s Dianne Feinstein and Illinois’ Richard J. Durbin have been talking about prodding the agency into doing that since last spring. It’s also why, late Monday, 200 Republican representatives notified the House Rules Committee that they intended to seek a “petition of discharge” for the “Broadcaster Freedom Act.” That bill, written by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former radio talk-show host, would prohibit the FCC from ever reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. Under the House rules, if Pence can get 218 signatories to the petition, the Democratic leadership must let it come to the floor for a vote.

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That’s what’s really at stake in all the posturing over MoveOn .org and Rush Limbaugh. In the minds of both parties, it’s not so much a fight over speech as it is over the right kind of speech. The sad irony is that the only voice that isn’t being heard in all this talk over talk is that of the public, which, after all, owns the airwaves over which this struggle is being waged.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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