Want to know how the world will look if Congress reinstates the Fairness Doctrine? Take a long look at what happened in Alaska when a radio talk-show host ran afoul of the political Establishment. After running a contest to get Alaskans to add themselves to a list of write-in candidates for the Senate race, Lisa Murkowski’s ad buyer threatened to get the FCC involved in Dan Fagan’s “electioneering” — and got him taken off the air. Now Sarah Palin has launched a broadside from her Facebook site against Murkowski for attacking free speech and political discourse:
Yesterday, Lisa Murkowski’s hired guns threatened radio host Dan Fagan, and more importantly, the station that airs Fagan’s show, with legal action for allegedly illegal “electioneering.” The station, unlike Murkowski, who is flush with millions of dollars from vested corporate interests, does not have a budget for a legal defense. So it did what any small market station would do when threatened by Beltway lawyers charging $500 to $1000 an hour – they pulled Dan Fagan off the air.
Does all this sound heavy handed? It is. It is an interference with Dan Fagan’s constitutional right to free speech. It is also a shocking indictment against Lisa Murkowski. How low will she go to hold onto power? First, she gets the Division of Elections to change its write-in process – a process that Judge Pfiffner correctly determined had been in place without change for 50 years. She is accepting financial support from federal contractors, an act that is highly questionable and now pending before the FEC. And today, she played her last card. She made it clear that if you disagree with her and encourage others to exercise their civic rights, she’ll take you off the air.
The concept of “electioneering” involves several issues, but typically refers to campaigning at the polls, which is appropriately banned. Under federal law, it can also mean paying for advertising on broadcast media during a federal election cycle, and it requires disclosures if done by groups and corporations. Fagan used satire to mock Murkowski’s write-in efforts and encouraged Alaskans to run as write-in candidates. That is not illegal. That is free speech.
Would Fagan and the radio station eventually get cleared on this? Yes, for the reasons given by Palin — but that’s not really the point. Murkowski didn’t need the FCC and the FEC to act in order to silence Fagan’s dissent; she only needed to use her power to threaten an intervention to succeed.
The real problem is that giving the powerful a tool like the Fairness Doctrine makes it even easier to shut down media criticism. We know this from its track record. The FD was so unworkable and vague that most radio and television stations simply refused to air political commentary of any kind. Imagine what kind of power that will hand people like Murkowski once it gets re-enacted, or a similar restriction under a different name.
Of course, the first thing that people can do is to keep those who abuse their power from holding office in the first place. Hopefully Alaskans take a lesson from Murkowski’s easy reach to government authority to silence her critics, and choose wisely at the ballot box on Tuesday.