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FCC needs to return airwaves to the people

After the massacre in Tucson, Ariz., all the right-wing talkers -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Glenn Beck, to name a few -- lined up and demanded: "Who, me?!"

Their fellow travelers on the blogs pushed a theory of equivalence: That commentators on the left had said things like "Kill Bush" and cut out "Dick Cheney's alleged heart." Yes, there is some match in viciousness from both extremes.

President Obama's audience at the University of Arizona knew it. When the president made his eloquent call for civility last Wednesday, people not only applauded, they rose and cheered from their collective gut. This troubled talk radio's devotees. They said the cheering at the Tucson memorial service was "inappropriate." They picked at the Native American prayer that preceded Obama's talk as "pandering," "peculiar" and "pantheistic paganism." They scratched at anything that might detract from the president's best moment since his inauguration.

Ditto-heads shuddered at the verdict the crowd rendered on them because they don't want this industry to stop. It is a huge enterprise founded on conservative insights and as a desperately needed alternative to politically correct traditional media. And on Limbaugh's fabulous sense of humor.

Loyalists follow them with an intensity once reserved for snake charmers. But with success, and competition from imitators, comes debasement. Limbaugh doesn't sound as disarmingly self-effacing as he once was. Yet he and his copycats seem close to their peak of influence. Rush earns $37.5 million; Hannity gets $20 million. While there is equivalence in viciousness from the right and left -- Gannett writer Chuck Raasch calls it "word inflation" -- there is no match in volume, repetition, intensity, ratings, meanness or effect.

The Tucson audience clearly saw this link between right-wing broadcast vitriol and gun violence. I think Limbaugh, Hannity & Co merely exploit the growing narcissism and grossness of Western society. They did not create it.

Still, something ought to be done under law and in a civil way about these broadcasters whose sentiments are rooted in selfish, fascistic support for the rich and for militarism. The ideal solution would be the withdrawal of their audience, one of the possible signals from the Tucson crowd. Reps. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and James Clyburn, D-S.C., reflected that a return to the pre-1987 Fairness Doctrine might help. That required broadcasters to offer a mix of views on the air. The Roberts Supreme Court, however, would rule restoration of that rule unconstitutional.

Another approach might be for community groups to attack the Federal Communications Commission's licenses for individual stations. One here in D.C. has hate talk from 5 a.m. till 9 p.m. Another in Buffalo shoves out divisive vitriol six hours a day.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project cautions that legislation and FCC rule changes since the mid-1990s have made challenges to license renewals meaningless. But Schwartzman points to a speech by FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps at the Columbia School of Journalism on Dec. 10. In it, Copps proposed cutting the eight-year renewal term in half and requiring licensees seeking renewal to pass a "public values test."

Among the yardsticks Copps cites are more straight news and information, local and minority ownership, local and children's programming, more license information available on the Internet and less group and cross-over ownership of broadcast media.

"At election time," he said, "there should be heightened expectations for debates and issues-oriented programming." Let's hope this signals some changes by the FCC to return control of the people's broadcast spectrum to the people. Or has "We, the People" become a suspect phrase? The last time I looked, this was the way the Constitution began.


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