A Special Report from The Heritage Foundation
Talk Radio, the Internet, Fox News, think tanks and grass-roots organizations - can you imagine where conservatives would be today without these institutions? But, these things did not always exist, and if many on the left have their way, conservatives will not have them available in the future.
For many years conservative ideas were shut out of the national dialogue. The three television networks - CBS, NBC and ABC - followed the liberal line of foreign policy, national defense, domestic policy, economics and social issues. There were few conservative commentators or columnists. The major universities were increasingly left-wing.
Beginning with Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the presidential election of 1964, conservatives began to think about how to reach the American people with conservative ideas. Slowly, over decades, conservatives built up alternative institutions to get around the blackout in the mainstream.
The Heritage Foundation and other think tanks were launched; they hired conservative experts who frequently could not get jobs in liberal-dominated universities, and began producing useful and principled policy ideas which have been adopted at a far higher rate than anything academia has produced.
Other conservatives learned how to use direct mail to reach conservatives with facts and ideas that the media shut out. Grass-roots conservatives were informed in this way about the handing over the Panama Canal, the Equal Rights Amendment, the abuses of the liberal Congress, and many more issues - and frequently changed the policy debates.
Conservative talk radio arose in the late 1980s, after the Reagan administration repealed the “Fairness Doctrine” that had discouraged broadcasters from putting controversial programming on the air. Cable television gave rise to Fox News, and with its success a demand for more conservative commentators on other television networks and cable channels.
More recently, the Internet has given conservatives the ability to get out enormous amounts of information to the public, to hold the mainstream media to account, and to talk to each other. The 2004 presidential election might have turned out differently had it not been for the instant analysis of Dan Rather’s fake memos that slammed President Bush right before the election, and the Internet-driven videos and ads that questioned Senator Kerry’s war record.
Many of these avenues are now under attack. Unless conservatives recognize the threats to their ability to communicate with each other and the rest of the American people, we could find the outlets we best make use of severely curtailed - while the Big Three networks, public broadcasting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other liberal media continue on their way unharmed. This report lays out some of the imminent threats to conservative speech and communications.
THE FAIRNESS DOCTRINE
The Fairness Doctrine was a government rule from 1949 to 1987 that had the opposite effect of what its name implies. It was supposed to create fair and balanced broadcasting by compelling radio and TV stations to air both sides of controversial issues. In practice, it led to most stations avoiding controversial content altogether. And some presidential administrations used the rule to harass conservative broadcasters and even force them off the air.
The FCC repealed the rule in 1987. And immediately conservative talk radio sprang up - with Rush Limbaugh leading the way, followed by G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan, Sean Hannity, and hundreds of others nationally and locally.
The left was taken aback. Here for the first time was a media phenomenon they did not control. Their attempts at duplicating talk radio’s success have flopped again and again, even well-funded, highly publicized efforts.
Unable to compete, they complain that conservative dominance in talk radio isn’t fair. So a number of leftists are waging a campaign to bring the government into the situation by reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which would enable them to force their way onto the airwaves.
The leftist media organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has produced a position paper that complains of “the immense volume of unanswered conservative opinion heard on the airwaves.” They quote with approval a complaint from a lawyer that “Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society.”
A University of Michigan professor, Susan Douglas, has created a platform for “saving” America from conservatives. A key plank in her platform is recognizing “how important media reform is, particularly reinstating the Fairness Doctrine… We see the results of too much Rush Limbaugh and O’Reilly without any balance: voters who don’t have the facts.”
This if far more than a campaign by left-wing cranks. Two FCC commissioners have recently called for some version of the Fairness Doctrine to be imposed. Members of Congress have introduced bills to bring back the rule. One measure almost made it through attached to another bill until some alert conservatives noticed the trickery and removed it. But the bill was introduced this year and is in Congress now.
Defeated presidential candidate John Kerry praised the Fairness Doctrine, saying: “You would have had a dramatic change in discussion in this country had we still had a Fairness Doctrine in the course of the last campaign. But the absence of a Fairness Doctrine and the corporatization of the media has changed dramatically the ability of and the filter through which certain kinds of information get to the American people.”
A consortium of liberal media groups is aggressively pushing an Internet-based petition drive to restore the Fairness Doctrine or its modern equivalent. The boards and advisors of these groups represent a who’s who of influential liberals. They are united in a well-funded drive to bring back the bad old days when Washington decided who could say what on America’s airwaves.
And this time there are many who want to extend the Fairness Doctrine’s reach beyond the airwaves - to cable TV and satellite TV. Their main target is Fox News.
The Internet has significantly changed the way politics and policy-making are conducted in America. The mainstream media can no longer filter what citizens can learn, as a vast array of facts is at everyone’s fingertips along with commentators from left to right who interpret the facts and give their opinions.
This free exchange of information is looked on with horror by some, especially those in the mainstream media who fear losing their monopoly. And those in Congress who have succeeded in shutting down much political speech and grass-roots activity through the Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 do not want the Internet to escape their grasp.
The Campaign Finance Reform Act is difficult enough to apply to traditional political activities. It was intended to get big money out of politics - which it tried to accomplish by limiting everybody’s political speech. But of course this is an impossible goal - there is too much at stake. In the 2004 elections big money was funneled to groups called 527s, such as the George Soros-funded groups America Coming Together (which spent $78 million) and the Media Fund ($54 million): and the conservative Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ($23 million). The Campaign Finance Reform supporters consider these groups a loophole and are moving to ban them, thus further limiting political speech.
Similarly, these supporters moved quickly to make sure that the Internet would not escape their control. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) gave the Internet a pass during the 2004 election. But the Campaign Finance Reform supporters went to court, and in September a judge ruled that the FEC had to issue regulations to Internet activities during election campaigns. These regulations will be in place for the 2006 election unless Congress makes it clear that is not its intention.
The Internet is still new and ever-changing. Regulations can not cover everything that goes on. Besides being an unwarranted limitation of political speech, the regulation makes it likely that many activities will be considered illegal and many ordinary people will be put at risk of huge legal expense, fines, and even prison.
Anything that helps a campaign can potentially be considered a contribution. Web sites link to campaign sites. Solitary individuals who publish blogs (web journals) praise candidates. College students, grandmothers and school teachers forward e-mails to their friends that might have originated from a campaign. If these things are considered contributions, ordinary citizens will have to file massive paperwork that Campaign Finance Reform requires - an expensive proposition not in the financial reach of the average person.
If it is unclear whether these are contributions, citizens will be fearful to act. And if they are not contributions, the same players could very well go to court again to specify more actions as falling under the Campaign Finance Reform Act, and citizens could find themselves guilty retroactively.
CONGRESS ATTACKS ON NONPROFITS
The Heritage Foundation and other think tanks, grass-roots foundations, legal defense groups, organizations that alert citizens to issues from education to immigration to tax policy, local and national charities, and all nonprofit associations are threatened by a move in Congress to vastly increase regulation of such groups.
It seems that some members of Congress believe that corruption is rampant among nonprofits, and increasing paperwork will solve the problem. There is no evidence that either of these propositions is true. The Heritage Foundation, like all nonprofits, had to file extensive paperwork at our founding to earn our nonprofit status; we produce reams of forms for the IRS every year. We, like other nonprofits, have had to undergo an IRS audit that was entirely unwarranted and cost us countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and went on five years before it was settled.
Most nonprofits are small and could not afford this additional burned; they will simply go out of business and stop serving the local needs that so many of them take care of. Small grass-root conservative groups may likewise be driven out of existence, and others that are badly needed will never come into existence.
The Heritage Foundation will have to take many dollars that should be used to further our mission of promoting free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense - and instead, spend the money on lawyers and clerks to fill out piles of new IRS forms.
Threats to our freedom can be defeated when millions of Americans are alerted and speak out. This report can be copied and given out. It is available on the Internet and can be printed out or emailed to friends, colleagues, talk shows, members of Congress, and anyone else. The report also provides links to other articles on the issues discussed here, if you want more detail.
You can also write letters based on the information in the report to members of Congress, newspapers, Internet forums, etc. If you have a website or a blog you can report on it and link to it.
Citizen action has stopped threats to our freedoms before - and it can again. It is up to you.