With Barack Obama now leading slightly in national polls, Sean Hannity appears to be slipping into panic. At least four times within the last week, he has absolutely refused to let callers who support Obama speak even one full sentence. He literally interrupts every single thing they say, changes the subject, and demands that the caller give yes-or-no answers to questions based on faulty premises unrelated to the call. One caller suggested he had a hate problem; to me, it smells like fear.
The irony of it on Thursday was that Hannity used part of his time to attack the Fairness Doctrine, which he is convinced that liberals in Congress are hell-bent on restoring. This argument was undercut even by the guest on Thursday's show, who noted that Congress is within a two dozen votes of forcing a House vote on a bill to ban the Federal Communications Commission from ever restoring the doctrine.
Where's the irony? Hannity's own outbursts against Obama supporters make the strongest case possible for why some sort of Fairness Doctrine might be useful. On Billings' two talk radio stations, for instance, there simply is no national program on which liberal voices can be heard. I don't mean just that the hosts are so-called conservatives; that's fine with me. But contrary opinions simply may not be expressed. Hannity interrupts every sentence with which he disagrees; Limbaugh acknowledges that his calls are screened to allow only those that bolster his arguments; Savage screams at people who disagree; Beck ridicules them; Cunningham demonstrates his lack of intelligence by insulting theirs. Only O'Reilly gives an occasional respectful hearing to a contrary voice, but even then it usually is only to set the stage for more of his own pontificating.
Even the Soviet Union did not have more effective control of any mass medium than so-called conservatives have of AM talk radio. Is this desirable? Does it reflect the marketplace? Is it likely to change? No, no, no.
Is the old-style Fairness Doctrine the best solution? Probably no to that, too. But it's certainly proper for the American people to consider what they are getting in return for the valuable broadcast frequencies they license to companies that have shown zero interest in reflecting the actual public debate going on in the country today.
UPDATE: Like Hannity, Dakota Voice appears to misunderstand, or ignore, the First Amendment issue. Clearly, government has some power to regulate broadcast speech, and we have seen this practiced over the years in a variety of ways: with restrictions on profanity and nudity, with certain hours set aside for kid-friendly content, with requirements for public service or news programming, with restrictions on the time devoted to commercial messages. Outside of a regulated broadcast environment, Janet Jackson's nipple would not have drawn a moment's notice.
This is possible because the public owns the airwaves and grants licenses to operate on specific frequencies. Anybody who doesn't like The Billings Gazette, for example, can start his own newspaper. Trust me on this: It is damnably hard. But it is at least theoretically possible. But no one has the right to set up a radio station anywhere he wants on any frequency he wants. I can't take on KBLG, but I can participate in democratic decisions that set broad guidelines for the sort of programming that appears on the airwaves I own.
Obviously, these decisions can have First Amendment implications. Even more obviously, the Fairness Doctrine has had unwelcome consequences in the past. But that does not mean it violates the Constitution.
UPDATE 2: For a careful look at the constitutional issues, go here. The post contains a link to Part I of the discussion. Part III of the series has never, to my knowledge, appeared.