Arguing for the Fairness Doctrine (badly)

Last week US News & World Report offered competing op-eds by Bill Press and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) on whether the so-called “fairness doctrine” should return to talk radio. Predictably, in his call for bringing the “fairness doctrine” back, Press had a number of – interesting, shall we say – statements. First up was his statement that “nobody” is calling for bringing back the “fairness doctrine.” I don’t know about you, but I think I’d feel vaguely insulted at being called a “nobody” if I were a United States Senator who had gone on the Bill Press Show within the past two months and called for a return of the “fairness doctrine (see Sen. Debbie Stabenow discussing the “fairness doctrine” here, and also Sen. Tom Harkin a few days later also supporting the “fairness doctrine,”).

The comments by Press that “nobody” is calling for a return of the “fairness doctrine” are also curious because Press himself wrote an op-ed calling for the return of the “fairness doctrine” in the Washington Post around the same time.

Perhaps it’s low self esteem by Press that causes him to dismiss himself as a “nobody” at the same time he insults two U.S. Senators, or maybe he just needs to take his ginkgo biloba more regularly to remember who has said what. Regardless, it’s clear that there have been a number of “somebody’s” calling for the return of the “fairness doctrine.”

The statements by Press become odder still the further he goes. For example, he claims that opponents of the “fairness doctrine” make “three amazingly lame arguments… first, that progressive talk radio has been tried and failed. Wrong. As pointed out above, progressive talk radio doesn’t even exist in many major markets. If it has never even been heard, you can’t say it didn’t work.

The only problem, of course, is that in the major markets where progressive talk does not currently exist, it has been heard in the past. Where presumably it failed to achieve the necessary ratings to survive, which seems to be pretty common for a lot of radio formats, not just progressive radio.

For example, one of the major markets that Press claims “progressive talk radio doesn’t even exist…[and] has never even been heard” is Washington DC. Crazily enough, there was a progressive station in DC up until a few months ago (WWRC 1260 AM) that even carried the Bill Press Show. It switched formats in February, presumably prompting much wailing and gnashing of teeth by Press.

Many of the other markets Press whines about have similar tales:

New York, Air America affiliate on WLIB 1190 AM thru August 2006, WWRL 1600 AM since

Providence, WHJJ 920 AM, an Air America affiliate until September 2005

Boston, WKOX 1200 AM and WXKS 1430 AM, simulcast Air America thru December 2006

Philadelphia, WHAT 1340 AM, Air America affiliate thru October 2005

Atlanta, WWAA 1690 AM, Air America affiliate thru at least June 2006

In fact, in only one of the cities that Press claimed has never heard progressive talk, Baltimore, was I unable to find a former Air America affiliate. So I think the complaint by Press that progressive talk radio has “never even been heard” in those markets pretty much fails the reality test.

Another odd statement by Press was the following: Where progressive talk shows are broad­cast, on the other hand, there are solid success stories. In Palm Springs, Calif., KPTR AM 1340 doubled its ratings from fall 2007 to fall 2008.”

I suppose it depends on how one defines success, and by any means a doubling of ratings isn’t a bad thing. But it helps to keep this “solid success story” in perspective. Doubling KPTR’s ratings meant going from .4 to .8 in the Palm Springs market (the 131st largest in America!), creating a three-way tie for 16th place in a market with 23 stations. That’s certainly an improvement from a two-way tie in 20th place, which is where KPTR was when it first started airing progressive talk in the fall of 2007, but I’m not sure it’s the defining American success story in talk radio.

Press makes more odd statements, such as his belief that the election of Barrack Obama proves that Americans want to listen to progressive talk radio. But that’s a non-sequitur – it’s entirely possible that large numbers of Americans liked what they heard from Obama and yet remain resistant to the idea that they need to tune in to progressive talk, just as tens of millions of Americans vote for Republicans and yet fail to tune in to Limbaugh, Hannity, and other conservative talkers.

Such logic never seems to occur to Press, intent as he is on justifying bringing back a new “fairness doctrine.” He does have the good sense to not demand the old requirements be re-imposed, instead trying to disguise his call for government control of political speech on the air as new limits on media ownership and a commitment to the “public interest,” but that is the best that can be said of an extremely weak argument.

And Bill, if your reference to yourself as a “nobody”  who is calling for the return of the “fairness doctrine” is due to low self esteem, I suggest you follow the practice of a former colleague of yours in the progressive talk industry – just tell yourself several times a day “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Eventually, you’ll start believing you’re somebody.

Sean Parnell


Center for Competitive Politics


[email protected]

cross-posted at http://www.campaignfreedom.org/blog/detail/the-fairness-doctrine-and-bill-press