The main question in light of the coming election is “what will Barack Obama do?” Should he become president, great — and totally undesirable — change awaits America. Brian Anderson and co-author Adam Thierer in their newly released book, A Manifesto for Media Freedom, answer this question. The authors elucidate the impact a Democrat-dominated government will have on our personal freedoms. The portrait they paint is reminiscent of Titian’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist — except the head of conservatism appears in John’s place. They warn that the damage to free speech arising from leftist domination of our government will be both severe and oppressive. Thankfully, Mr. Anderson found time to answer a few queries about our haunted future. Mr. Anderson is the editor of City Journal, which is among the most insightful and generative of conservative publications. Previously, he wrote Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents and South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.
BC: Congratulations on the release of your new book, Mr. Anderson. It’s your second release in a year’s time. First off, what is the Fairness Doctrine and how close are we to its becoming viable?
Brian Anderson: Thanks, Bernard. The Fairness Doctrine was an old regulation of the Federal Communications Commission dating back in various forms to 1929 and officially codified in the late 40s. It would rule broadcast media until Ronald Reagan’s FCC got rid of it in 1987, seeing it as suppressing free speech. It required radio and later broadcast television stations to cover issues of interest to the community in which it could be heard or watched and to provide airtime to opposing viewpoints. Lack of compliance meant potential fines and ultimately loss of license.
When the Fairness Doctrine was gone, talk radio exploded — going from only 100 or so talk shows of any kind in the early 80s to the thousands that exist today and that draw big audiences. It turns out that the doctrine did suppress speech on the airwaves. Stations didn’t want the hassle of government regulators looking over their shoulder and so they shied away from controversial opinion. Adam Thierer and I show in the book how, from the outset, the Fairness Doctrine was used by politicians to harass their critics on radio and TV. It is a too-tempting power to abuse.
Its reintroduction — an idea supported enthusiastically by Democratic Party leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Al Gore — would destroy talk radio, the one medium that conservative and libertarian voices dominate. Obama claims not to want to restore it, but it is hard to imagine him vetoing a bill if Congress delivered him one. And the media reforms he does aggressively support, including imposing new local accountability measures on broadcasters, would amount to much the same thing. As sketched out by Democrats, stations would be subjected to renewing their license every two years, instead of eight, which is today the case, and would have to include in the re-licensing process the input of local community monitoring boards, which would swiftly be taken over by activists, since other people actually have to work.
BC: Is there a difference between the political left and the political right’s approach to free speech?
Brian Anderson: Conservatives have traditionally sought to suppress pornography and vulgarity, of course; the political left has done this too — one of the leading advocates of regulating the video game industry, for example, is Hillary Clinton — but it adds to that a scary desire to control political speech completely at odds with the ideals of the American Founders. Controlling political speech is to suppress criticism. A world in which conservative talk radio was a diminished presence would be a world in which liberals could enact their preferred legislation more easily, whether this was higher taxes, further restrictions on campaign finance — which John McCain has always promoted, but which the left has been the prime driver of — and on and on. A clampdown on talk radio would empower the unregulated print media, which leans left; there are many liberals today who long for the pristine time when all those nasty voices weren’t on the air and everyone got up and read their New York Times and had dinner with CBS News. There’s a play getting good reviews in New Jersey, Fair and Decent, which, believe it or not, is all about how the Fairness Doctrine was defeated, giving birth to what the playwright, Thomas Diggs, sees as a new dark era of Limbaughs and Hannitys.
BC: You’ve no doubt witnessed the tactics of the Obama campaign in relation to its foes. For example, they attempted to take Chicago talk show host Milt Rosenberg off the air when he dared to interview Obama critics David Freddoso and Stanley Kurtz — not to mention its ongoing and fervent war against Dr. Jerome Corsi. Has his strategy on the election trail foreshadowed what he’ll do should he get into office?
Brian Anderson: I think it very much does. When the NRA released some ads in Pennsylvania taking Obama to task for his gun voting record, his campaign’s lawyer fired off letters to the stations that carried the ad charging that they had violated public interest obligations. When a 527 group, the American Issues Project, released a commercial linking Obama to Bill Ayers, the campaign unsuccessfully complained to the Justice Department that AIP had broken campaign finance laws — and it spooked several stations away from carrying the spots. You’ll see lots, lots more of this radiating out of an Obama/Democrat-controlled Washington.
BC: Net neutrality sounds like a fair concept, but what are its actual effects? Is it an attempt to fix a problem that does not exist?
Brian Anderson: Mandated neutrality, which the Democrats embrace, is a very bad idea. What it would amount to is giving government overseers at the FCC the power to force Internet providers to treat equally all the traffic that moves through their conduits — the fiber optic cable, the phone lines, the wireless connections, and so on. Thus the provider couldn’t slow down or speed up any traffic — slow down the bandwidth hog downloading huge movie files, say, so as to let email users check their emails quickly. The provider certainly couldn’t offer new super-fast services for a fee, just as FedEx accelerates delivery of a package for a fee, or other services that might treat Internet users unequally. No digital discrimination! This makes zero economic sense — it is a kind of infrastructure socialism — in that we’re telling the firms actually building the bandwidth capacity of the future that they can’t run their own cables as they see fit. But why should they keep building it then? If they don’t build it, however, the Internet in the U.S. will slow as more and more information surges online, including massive visual files.
But our deeper worry is that once the Federal Communications Commission starts mucking about, talking about digital discrimination and equality, we’ll see the first steps toward establishing a Fairness Doctrine for web opinion sites. The FCC commissioner Robert McDowell recently warned of this possibility; an advisor to the Democrats on regulatory issues, Cass Sunstein, has in the past argued in favor of such a measure; the EU has looked at implementing it. This isn’t a science fiction scenario, though implementing it would generate a firestorm.
BC: What’s been the impact of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act?
Brian Anderson: What we show in the book is how campaign finance restrictions are beginning to encroach on the media. One example we discuss: when a conservative group tried to counter Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, the Federal Election Commission ruled that they couldn’t show or advertise it anywhere close to the election, lest penalties apply. Moore’s film — equally political, of course — got a pass because the commission viewed him as a legitimate filmmaker, not an activist. This is just crazy — we begin approaching a world of completely regulated politics. That’s wildly un-American.
BC: Where will the war on political speech end? How much can the First Amendment be distorted before it has no meaning whatsoever? Will the political left eventually attempt to control conservative publishing houses and all of our publications?
Brian Anderson: I worry deeply about how far this will go. Killing or reducing the influence of talk radio would actually harm conservative publishing, since talk radio is the number one way right-of-center authors can get the word out about something they have written. Our First Amendment jurisprudence would be hard for the Founders to recognize — finding protections for virtual kiddie porn but eroding the political speech rights that the Framers viewed as essential to a flourishing free society.
BC: Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Anderson.