Even before the applause for President Barack Obama’s homily on civility faded in Tucson, leading figures on the left appeared to be dusting off plans to use the tragedy to push for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine in a bid to muzzle talk radio.
“Free speech is as free speech does,” Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., declared the day after the shooting. “You cannot yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and call it free speech. And some of what I hear, and is being called free speech, is worse than that.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., had expressed similar sentiments, complaining that the Federal Communications Commission simply is “not working anymore.”
“What I’d like to see is if we could all get together on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, and really talk about what we can do to cool down the country,” Slaughter told TheHill.com. “Part of that has to be what they’re hearing over the airwaves.”
Adding to the concern that some in Washington want to use the shooting rampage that left six dead to elevate civility and political correctness above freedom of speech: Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee's announcement that he will boycott talk-radio appearances and ban all state employees from commenting to talk-radio hosts. Chaffee castigated talk radio as “more entertainment than journalism” and blamed it for the nation’s caustic partisan squabbles over politics.
Chaffee, a Republican who turned independent, was forced to modify his directive Tuesday, after it was pointed out to him that his order would prevent emergency-response officials and police from advising the public what they should do during weather situations, traffic blockages, and other circumstances.
The reaction from the right to the linkage between the alleged act of a mentally unstable 22-year-old who apparently had harbored a grudge against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords since 2007, and ongoing efforts on the left to return political dialogue to the pre-Ronald Reagan days of network communications hegemony, triggered a predictable, immediate reaction.
“What are we seeing again after this week in the shooting?” Fox News host Glenn Beck said Wednesday evening on his program. “We’re seeing them solve problems? No they’re not. They’re offering solutions to things that aren’t a problem.
“You know, we had the Fairness Doctrine on talk radio. We had the Fairness Doctrine. It was in the 1950s and '60s and '70s. And while we had the Fairness Doctrine, we lost JFK, MLK, RFK. We had Reagan shot. We had Ford shot at twice. The Fairness Doctrine did not seem to reduce violence. Why, I wonder? That’s not going to work.”
Former George W. Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon, one of the founders of the “No Labels” political movement that seeks a more bipartisan political dialogue, tells Newsmax that pushing the Fairness Doctrine is a non-starter.
“Tragedies always generate consideration of a lot of ideas, some of them really bad,” McKinnon says. “Like the Fairness Doctrine. Free speech is American and democratic. Mandated speech is not.”
Top radio talker Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, reported on his show that activist Al Sharpton visited with FCC officials in the aftermath of the incident to pressure the agency to rein in free expression on the airwaves.
“What I see is the Democrat Party, its representatives and its supporters on the American left, attempting to take a genuine human tragedy, and their first instinct is to politicize it, and that desire, their political desire, is to silence, to quiet people who they consider their opposition,” Limbaugh told listeners. "If that is not attempting to profit off murder, I don't know what it is.”
Most analysts believe there is little chance the FCC, which recently voted to impose a modified version of the Net Neutrality regulation against the wishes of its Republican minority, could actually succeed in restoring the Fairness Doctrine. Conservatives maintain that the doctrine historically stifled free speech by requiring constant rebuttals from those with differing views — any attempt to reinstate it would draw an immediate legal challenge in the courts.
Boston University Communications professor Tobe Berkovitz tells Newsmax there is “absolutely not” any reason to link the Tucson rampage to a reconsideration of the merits of the Fairness Doctrine. The effort to impose “fairness” on broadcast media, he points out, was based on the scarcity of frequency options available in the age of pre-digital media. Moreover, media content regulation traditionally has relied on the impact on “the average” viewer or listener, which clearly would not apply to the Tucson suspect, he says.
“All regulation was based on this concept of spectrum scarcity and limited resources,” Berkovitz explains. “In today’s communications marketplace, in fact there’s more scarcity in print than there is over the electronic spectrum, whether it’s the number of cable television channels we have, the almost limited number of web sites and blogs, the FM spectrum, streaming audio. So the whole reason for the Fairness Doctrine has evaporated, regardless of your politics and whether you think the content is good or bad.”
One lawmaker, Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said after the killings in Tucson that he would introduce legislation to make it a crime to threaten or encourage violence against any federal official. Doing so, some may argue, would effectively create a political class that would enjoy special protections from the First Amendment liberties of others.
The effort of both parties and the media to sift the heartbreaking events in Tucson for political fodder appears to be in direct opposition to the tenor or Obama’s remarks Tuesday, which won widespread plaudits from both sides of the aisle.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” he said. “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
But conservatives worry that while the president presents his party’s genteel face to the public, others in his party and administration are busily seeking ways to shackle the GOP agenda of neutralizing the big-government agenda of the past two years.
In the run-up to the president’s address, for example, Democrats dispatched unidentified sources to the media to launch not one but two new lines of political attack against conservatives.
First, they objected that Sarah Palin’s use of the phrase “blood libel,” traditionally a term connected with persecution of Jews, was culturally insensitive and anti-Semitic. No less an authority than Harvard law professor and author Alan Dershowitz there was nothing wrong with Palin’s remark. No less a cultural icon than Rev. Franklin Graham has termed the blatant attempt to pin the blame for the shooting on Palin “outrageous.”
The second round of anonymous leaks implied House Speaker John Boehner displayed coldhearted indifference to the Tucson tragedy by declining the president’s invitation to ride along on Air Force One and attend the event.
As Boehner’s allies subsequently explained, the invitation from the White House was given for the sake of decorum. White House officials knew that Boehner had prior commitments that made leaving Washington difficult if not impossible. On the House floor Tuesday Boehner delivered a teary-eyed memorial for the victims and their families. Later that evening he hosted a reception for the members of the Republican National Committee, which is preparing to select a chairman.
McKinnon tells Newsmax the attack on Boehner “is precisely the kind of thing President Obama was saying last night we need to avoid. It's partisan, petty and and not helpful to healing.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger weighed in Thursday on whether Obama’s call for a less vitriolic rhetoric will bear fruit. “The divide between this strain of the American left and its conservative opponents is about more than politics and policy,” he wrote. “It goes back a long way, it is deep, and it will never be bridged.”
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