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Rep. believes Democratic media reform bill may prevent possible 'fascist' takeover of US media

Miriam Raftery
Published: Sunday January 21, 2007
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Rep. Hinchey: New bill would break up media monopolies and restore fairness doctrine

Warns media reform critical to prevent 'end of democratic republic'

Concerns about monopolies and fears of a possible "fascist" takeover of the US media have prompted a Democratic congressman to push to restore the Fairness Doctrine, RAW STORY has learned.

"Media reform is the most important issue confronting our democratic republic and the people of our country," Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) said at the Free Press National Media Reform Conference held in Memphis, Tennessee last weekend. "This is a critical moment in history that may determine the future of our country…maybe forever."

Hinchey told RAW STORY he plans to reintroduce the Media Ownership Reform Act (MORA) that would break up media monopolies and restore the Fairness Doctrine, which was eliminated by the Federal Communications Commission under the Reagan administration.

“If Rush shoots his mouth off, he must give equal access to our side,” Hinchey said. “The American public will begin to get both sides or all sides of an issue. That is basic – fundamental to a democracy.”

Last year, Hinchey introduced H.R. 3302 (MORA), but Republicans blocked the measure in committee. He also founded the Future of American Media Caucus in Congress in 2005. With Democrats now in control of Congress, a new media reform measure is expected to be assigned to the House Energy and Commerce Committee within the next couple of weeks, Hinchey’s staff confirmed.

“We’ll be trying hard to get the subcommittee and the full committee chairs to bring this to the House floor,” Hinchey pledged. A companion bill will be introduced on the Senate side by Bernie Sanders (D-VT), he added.

MORA would restore the Fairness Doctrine, reinstate a national cap on ownership of radio stations, lower the number of radio stations that one company can own in a local market, and reinstate the 25 percent national cap on television ownership, among other restrictions. The bill’s no-grandfathering provision would compel media conglomerates to divest to comply with new ownership limitations.

MORA would also require public interest reports from broadcasters and require more independently produced programming on TV. In addition, it establishes new public interest obligations to assure that broadcasters meet the needs of local communities and requires increased, sustained public input and outreach to give the people a voice in programming.

Media 'con job'

Hinchey faults the mainstream media for failing to tell Americans the truth about “an administration in Washington that has falsified information to people about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify an illegal and unjustified attack perpetrated on Iraq. How was it that Congress voted to give the President that authority? And how was it that so many people just bought into it when Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and whatever weapons they had were given to them by the Reagan administration?”

Talk radio has become dominated by shows that are “right wing, even neo-fascist,” he said, adding that even the best newspapers gave readers a “con job” by reporting false information fed by the administration.

“This should make every single citizen in America deeply concerned,” he told conference attendees. “What lies will they tell in the future to jeopardize this democratic republic or even end this democratic republic? That is the objective of many of those involved.”

Hinchey believes the takeover of the U.S. media has been carefully calculated by the “political right wing,” starting with the abolition in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine, which was originally adopted in 1949 in reaction to the rise of global fascism prior to World War II.

“Fascist government dominated discussions in Europe. They could now broadcast all over and control all information going out. That’s how they took over governments in Spain and Italy,” Hinchey recalled. “The U.S. said the airways should be owned by everyone.”

The Fairness Doctrine required that broadcasters give equal time to people who wished to express an opposing viewpoint. “Under the Reagan administration, the FCC wiped out that rule and said only businesses that operate stations can express their view,” Hinchey noted. Congress passed a bill that would have required the FCC to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, but that bill was vetoed by Reagan.

“The veto said clearly that this is an idea from the political right wing because we do not want to allow other points of view – because if we allow free and open discussion on the environment, healthcare [and other issues], in almost every case the right wing will lose.”

Asked whether the Congressman believes there is now an attempt at a fascist takeover of the U.S., a Hinchey staffer noted that Rep. Hinchey’s legislation arose from his concern about increasing concentration of media ownership into the hands of a few individuals and corporations. “Whether or not there is a purpose that includes fascism, we could wind up in a fascist situation if corporations end up controlling information without the government providing some balancing mechanism, such as the Fairness Doctrine,” said the staffer, who spoke on background only and did not wish to be named. “He would also say that the FCC’s recent efforts to weaken media ownership rules in order to enable corporations to own more and more outlets plays into that as well.”

How far would the Fairness Doctrine go?

If reinstated by Hinchey’s bill, the Fairness Doctrine would govern all news programs on public airways, including networks as well as cable stations such as Fox or MSNBC, but would not apply to entertainment shows. Thus a broadcaster such as Comedy Central could argue that the Daily Show or Colbert Report is exempt. Requiring multiple viewpoints via a Fairness Doctrine is particularly important in rural areas, where residents may have access to only a single TV station and can’t afford cable, the staffer added.

Similarly, regulation of talk radio programming would be dependent on whether those shows are defined by broadcasters as news or entertainment. But a Hinchey staffer noted, “We would argue that they are providing commentary on news much like what you see at the end of a news broadcast and as such, they should provide time to people providing other views. We are not saying that they should be taken off the air.”

Just how far would the Fairness Doctrine go? RAW STORY asked Hinchey’s staff whether a station might be compelled to give equal time to a holocaust denier or KKK spokesman if pro-Jewish or civil rights viewpoints were aired. According to a staffer, a station might air controversial opposing views with a disclaimer that those views do not necessarily reflect the station’s viewpoint. A broadcaster might also provide a factual report to dispel lies told by a guest.

A Hinchey spokesperson stressed that the Fairness Doctrine does have limits. “If you’re reporting on al Qaeda, you’re not going to have to have a sympathizer talk about the merits of Al Qaeda activities.”

What about races such as the California gubernatorial election following the recall of Governor Grey Davis, in which around 100 candidates were on the ballot? A broadcaster could impose “reasonable standards.” For example, a TV debate during the California gubernatorial race included candidates who polled above a certain level. “There is no way to have an exact science, but the spirit is what’s important,” Hinchey’s staffer said. “The FCC would look to see that a broadcaster had employed some guidelines and done its utmost to respect the doctrine.” Complaints would be investigated on a case-by-case basis by the FCC, as is currently done for indecency complaints, the staffer added.

The need for media reform is crucial, Hinchey stressed, citing the President’s escalation of the Iraq War and “jacking up” a “need to attack Iran and Syria.” He also expressed concerns over the elimination of habeus corpus and the President’s recent signing statement declaring a right to open citizens’ mail. “He is violating the Constitution and the law,” Hinchey said. “If you can control the media, you control ideas and actions of the people.”

While Hinchey said that impeachment is not likely to go forward, he stressed the importance of making sure that the American people see the proceedings of a “series of investigations” in the new Congress. “The people of America have got to understand what happened, who did it, and why they did it to make sure that no future president gets away with it again.”

Asked by RAW STORY what steps can be taken to assure that Congressional oversight hearings on the administration will be aired by major broadcast networks, Hinchey replied, “Some networks will carry it.”

Hinchey added, “There is a definite role for the public. The American people have got to understand how important this is. Five corporations control ninety percent of radio and TV. They are trying to change the rules of access to let them control the newspapers as well.”

In an op-ed published at a website run by the right-wing think tank Frontiers of Freedom Institute, the owner of the web-based news journal, Daley Times-Post, argues that Democratic efforts to exhume the fairness doctrine reveal "just how far to the left their party has slid over the years."

"Mr. Hinchey states that MORA 'seeks to restore integrity and diversity to America's media system by lowering the number of media outlets that one company is permitted to own in a single market,' but he fails to point out that no company is going to be successful enough to buy very many media outlets in any market unless it gives its audience what it wants," Edward L. Daley writes. "Fed up with the left-wing bias that has permeated the television news industry for decades, today's media consumers demand both diversity and integrity from the people who provide them with news and information."

"That's why talk radio programs are so popular these days," Daley adds. "Shows like Rush Limbaugh's afford their listeners with a wide variety of viewpoints, and their hosts routinely cite articles from the most reputable news sources around."

On newspaper consolidation

RAW STORY spoke with Hinchey about increasing newspaper consolidation and newspapers that restrict access to political candidates. For example, the San Diego Union-Tribune refused to cover Democratic Congressional candidate Jeeni Criscenza, who was running against Republican incumbent Darryl Issa, the richest member of Congress, despite the fact that Criscenza visited hotspots in the Middle East, traveled to Mexico to observe the vote count, and made numerous high-profile campaign appearances throughout the district she sought to represent.

“This is an issue we’ll have to look at and address,” Hinchey said. “It’s clear it is a conspiratorial agenda going on, led by the right wing political operatives in America.”

Asked whether a Fairness Doctrine for newspapers is worth considering, particularly in cities with only one major newspaper, Hinchey responded, “It is, but the big thing now is for television and radio. The primary focus is on the broadcasting system, because that is where most Americans get their news.” Partisan newspapers is nothing new, he added, noting that Colonial Era publishers attacked both Jefferson and Madison.

As early as April of this year, a window is expected to open for the FCC to approve applications for FM radio stations. RAW STORY asked Hinchey what criteria the FCC will use to determine who will be awarded high-power FM licenses and how to make sure that right-wing groups or churches are not given priority over progressive applicants.

“To be candid, there isn’t anything we can do to be certain that this won’t happen,” the Congressman revealed. He noted that the FCC is an executive branch agency with five commissioners – and three are Republicans who control decisions. “It is a roll of the dice,” he warned, “but some of those dice are loaded – and the FCC is loading them.”

With Democrats now in control of the House, Hinchey has been named to a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee with jurisdiction over the FCC budget. He posed a challenge to members of Congress to pass media reform, asking, “Will we be strong enough to bear this responsibility?”