When I heard in the wake of the Tucson shootings that Jim Clyburn had said something about bringing back the “Fairness Doctrine” (the long-lapsed FCC regulation requiring that broadcasters offer “equal time” to controversial political content), I literally groaned aloud. “Oh God,” I thought, “that’s all it will take to keep that conspiracy theory alive for another year or two.”
Sure enough, Rush Limbaugh and company were off to the races, as reported by Politico‘s Keach Hagey:
When some liberals called for reining in harsh political rhetoric after the Arizona shootings, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) took it one step further. He called for bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, in what was widely considered an attempt to clamp down on talk radio.
A week later, those calls have abated, and no one is seriously pursuing the idea of returning to the long-defunct policy, which required media on the public airwaves to present both sides of controversial political issues. Not Clyburn, not another Democrat who echoed his call for regulatory remedies, Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), and not the Federal Communications Commission, whose chairman opposes reinstating the policy.
But you wouldn’t know it from listening to conservative talk radio.
Conservative talkers like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity are rallying their listeners with a very old — and very successful — battle cry, accusing the left of trying to curb their free speech.
“So believe me, I wouldn’t be surprised, folks, if somebody in the Obama regime or some FCC bureaucrat or some Democrat congressperson has already written up legislation to stifle and eliminate conservative speech, and that legislation is sitting in a desk drawer someplace just waiting for the right event to clamp down because that’s what all this is,” Limbaugh said Monday, in his first show since the shooting. “And every time an event like this happens, they get into a trial run in hopes that this is the one that they can succeed in shutting us all down.”
This theme remained a constant on talk radio, conservative blogs and Fox News throughout the week….
Never mind that the “threat” is totally not-happening. Never mind that even if the Fairness Doctrine were brought back, it would involve “equal time,” not the suppression or elimination of conservative gabbing. Never mind that even in that remote contingency, it would only apply to the increasingly less-dominant broadcast media, not to “speech.” And never mind that when the Fairness Doctrine was in effect, there was plenty of conservative advocacy abroad in the land.
Rush’s lurid suggestion that the Obama administration was looking for “the right event to clamp down” and that Clyburn was cleverly and with vast secret backing conducting a “trial run” by bringing the subject up represented a bit more than the now-habitual effort to make purveyors of extremist rhetoric the victims of the Tucson tragedy. He was stopping just short of the analogy which you can see in comment threads all over the right-wing blogosphere: that “the Left” is looking for a “Reichstag Fire” with which to justify a totalitarian takeover of the country, just like you-know-who did back in 1933.
No informed and sane conservative believes this crap, even for a moment. But Rush and Glenn and Sean–not to mention the authors of countless viral emails shrieking about the Fairness Doctrine for at least two years now–play with fears of imminent totalitarianism regularly, and it’s about time folks on the Right called them on it. Aside from unnecessarily scaring the folks who hear and trust this stuff, it must be noted that such fearmongering has the collatoral effect of stimulating the sort of insurrectionary sentiments that genuine totalitarian threats might legitimately raise. And it’s an especially bad time to be doing that.