In what could only be described as a bizarre and illogical first move as the newly elected governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee (I) announced a ban on state employees having any contact with radio broadcasters. The move is part of a broader attack on radio broadcasters by liberals across the nation in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona.
Shortly after the heartbreaking incident in Tucson, liberals across the spectrum immediately began assigning blame for it, without evidence, to conservatives and the tone of rhetoric in today’s politics. Even after this notion was completely debunked as anything was learned of the shooter, Jared Loughner, liberal leaders persisted. Even after President Obama wisely rebuked such a suggestion in his Tucson address.
Congressman Bob Brady (D-PA) chose to introduce a bill that would limit the exercise of free speech to that which a member of congress agrees with, dismissively saying: “Let the Supreme Court deal with freedom of speech. Let the Supreme Court deal with the Constitution. Congress passes laws. That’s what we do.”
Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) chose to call for a return to the Fairness Doctrine, looking for a better way “to control our airwaves.” Of course, Congress censoring the airwaves was an idea rejected long ago. In fact, the Fairness Doctrine was in place when President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, so its connection with the incident in Arizona is nothing but opportunism on the part of elected leaders looking to stifle free speech and debate.
Taking a cue from Clyburn and Slaughter, Governor Chafee didn’t even wait for the FCC to take action against radio broadcasters, and instead muzzled all state employees unilaterally. Chafee’s spokesman defended the decision saying talk-radio is “ratings-drive, for-profit programming” and went on to say they don’t “think it is appropriate to use taxpayer resources” -in the form of state employee work time to- “support for-profit, ratings-driven programming.”
This attempt to conceal their personal animosity towards one broadcast vehicle and the free speech platform it provides is simply illogical and obtuse. If the problem is simply that radio hosts are “for-profit” than any media ban would absolutely have to include television, print newspapers and the internet. Since almost all media is a business enterprise. But of course, it does not. If the problem was that radio is “ratings-driven” then even National Public Radio (NPR) and PBS television would be off-limits since they absolutely pay attention and promote ratings as well.
And to wage a battle against a broadcast medium rather than simply choosing not to go on a particular show, as Chafee has done in the past, simply demonstrates a lack of awareness of how the media operates in the 21st century. Americans are no longer tied to three networks for news, and a handful of newspapers. If they don’t like a personality on Twitter, they can unfollow them. If they don’t like a newspaper, they can choose from thousands of publications online. If they don’t like a television show or network, they can flip to one of the many other choices. And if they don’t like a radio host, they can strategically choose another show to listen to, or appear on.
Americans need to celebrate the media choices available to them today, rather than allow elected leaders to try and limit their options and access to news and analysis through raw government dictates like the Fairness Doctrine or Chafee’s radio ban.
Seeing that their crusade against the airwaves was lacking intellectual substance, Governor Chafee today announced that the ban may only be temporary. Chafee denied it had anything to do with the criticism he himself faces from radio hosts saying: “we can’t be diverted with all the nonsense on talk-radio,” adding “it’s more entertainment than journalism.”
Whether Governor Chafee has any respect for those who take to the airwaves each day to report and analyze the news isn’t important. He does not need to respect them. But what he does need to do is respect their power to exercise their first amendment rights without fear of government retribution.
As an elected official, Governor Chafee should know that he cannot build consensus on issues facing the state, or the actions he plans to take without properly explaining his agenda to the people of Rhode Island. He certainly is aware of this, since he often took to the same radio airwaves he now seeks to ban as he was campaigning for the office of governor.
If Chafee chooses to use the tragedy of Arizona to further a goal of silencing his critics, it will be a terrible precedent for civil and free discourse. Rhetoric is not inherently uncivil simply because it disagrees with the liberalism Chafee espouses.
As President Obama said last night in his Tucson address: “[I]t’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Using this tragedy to satisfy a grudge against an entire broadcast spectrum is not a strategy of healing, but will only further divide our nation and our discourse.