Congresswoman Slaughter and The MEDIA Act |
For the nearly 20 years she has been in Congress, Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has fought
for fairness on the airwaves. Her latest legislation on the topic is HR
4710, "The MEDIA Act," which would reinstate the fairness doctrine and
ensure that broadcasters present discussions of conflicting views on
issues of public importance. Read the transcript of a web exclusive
conversation between Bill Moyers and Congresswoman Slaughter below. Also
on the NOW site: find out more about the fairness doctrine and media consolidation.
BILL MOYERS: You were elected in Congress in 1986.
BILL MOYERS: That was the year the
fairness doctrine went down and you've been fighting ever since to
resurrect it. Why?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: I have. And, you know,
I was so committed to it and I kept doing bills. Because the airwaves
belong to the people. I think we've good and sufficient examples now of
what has happened to us with media consolidation the fact that
the information coming to us is controlled, the fact that at least half
the people in the United States have no voice because they're not
allowed in on talk radio.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me exactly what the fairness doctrine was.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Pretty much that you had an obligation to
present two sides of an issue. There wasn't really an obligation to go
out and hunt for somebody if something outrageous was said on a station
that you owned, or television station. But if someone asked to come on
to present an opposing view, they were allowed to do it. And the
stations were obligated to do it. And most station owners that I've
talked to have said it wasn't onerous. They didn't find it all that
BILL MOYERS: What happened to the fairness doctrine? It was in
effect for years. In the early '80s the Federal Communications
Commission decided to…
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Do away with it the
grounds, on the grounds that they said it was not a law. It was just a
policy. Congress then sprang into action and passed a law putting it
into a law that…
BILL MOYERS: They overrode the FCC?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: They overrode the FCC. And I'll tell you that
it was such an astonishing vote. I think it was three to one in the
House, two to one in the Senate. Among the people voting for it were
Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich and others.
BILL MOYERS: To keep
the fairness doctrine.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: To keep the fairness
doctrine and codify it into law. But President Reagan vetoed it. And I
remember my party was in charge at the time, the Democratic party. And
I went to the leadership. And I said, "This is outrageous. We've got
to try to override that veto."
And they would not. They did not make any attempt despite the
overwhelming vote in both houses to codify the fairness doctrine. They
refused to try to override that veto. And we tried again in about 1993,
I think. But it didn't go anywhere.
And throughout all this time, I was also sponsoring a piece of
legislation to require the broadcasters using our airwaves to give a
small box of time to the challenger and the incumbent free. And they'd
break it up into 60 seconds, whatever. It wouldn't bore people.
But the candidate had to sit as you and I are sitting and talk to the
camera. And we wouldn't have all these voice-overs. And I tried that
one for six years and found out a few years ago that the broadcasters
spent $11 million to kill that one amendment.
BILL MOYERS: Talk to me about the power of the broadcasters.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Overwhelming. Overwhelming.
We had in 2002, Senator Torricelli [of NJ] was able to pass an amendment
in the Senate that said that all broadcast media this was in
relationship to political campaigning so advertising, that they
had to give us the lowest commercial rate and couldn't put us on at 2
a.m. on Sunday morning, right. It was to comply with law that was
already on the books. And [Torricelli's amendment] passed, I think, 98
When we brought the Torricelli amendment over to the House and I managed
the bill, we couldn't pass it because the broadcasters had had time
between the Senate and the House [votes] to lobby against it. And we
lost by two-thirds. One-third of the House of Representatives would
stand up and say, "Yes, we have to comply with a law that's on our
BILL MOYERS: So when the fairness doctrine went down in 1986,
that was the first year you came to Congress, what was the consequence
of it? What happened as a result?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: AM radio
rose. It wasn't even gradual, Bill. I mean, almost immediately. And I
should point out to you that when we tried to reinstate [the fairness
doctrine] again in '93, one of the reasons we couldn't was that Rush
Limbaugh had organized this massive uprising against it, calling it "The
Hush Rush Law." Which again said that while Rush can speak and anybody
that he wants to can speak on those stations, the rest of us can't. But
he aroused his listeners so that they contacted their members of
Congress and killed the bill, and that's not the first time we've seen
I don't know if you remember, but I believe it was Massachusetts I think
where they were doing seat belt law? And talk radio was against it and
killed that bill. I mean we've seen this before.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you know some serious people, including some
liberals have said that one reason Rush Limbaugh has succeeded is
because he is good entertainment.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Exactly.
He doesn't make any pretense of being a news person or even telling you
the truth. He says he's an entertainer.
BILL MOYERS: And you're saying that kind of discourse is
dominating America right now.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Dominating America and a waste of good
broadcast time and a waste of our airwaves.
BILL MOYERS: Not to the people who agree with him.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, they don't hear anything else. Why would
they disagree with him?
BILL MOYERS: But today, you don't have to just listen to one
radio. You've got a choice of radio stations. You've got the internet.
You've got the magazines. You've got how many? Five hundred channels,
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Yes. But we don't have all those
people lining up to discuss what's going on, what's happening in our
country. Frankly, I want every American, every single one, to
understand what's happened here. We were able to stop some
consolidation last year. But the FCC was intent on simply allowing
three or four corporations to own it all.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that every day in America
according to our research, on the 45 top rated talk radio stations,
there are 310 hours of conservative talk and only five hours of talk
from the other side of the aisle? Now the nation is evenly divided
politically, but on talk radio…
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Actually
more than that. There was a poll done that showed that 70 percent of
Americans conservatives, liberals, whatever stride said
they're not being told the truth anymore. But what upsets me frankly,
is I'm surprised it's five percent. And I think that's because one
radio station in my district was converted to Air America…
MOYERS: To the liberal network.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: …to
sort of keep us quiet. It says to me that that's why senior citizens
don't understand now that social security is going to be privatized.
And that they don't understand what the Medicare bill that was passed
intends to do, and that's get rid of Medicare and push everybody on HMO
by 2010. Because we have no way in the world to get this information
out to people. And it is a shame.
BILL MOYERS: You're saying
that the removal of the fairness doctrine and the concentration of power
in a handful of major media companies have led to a one-side political
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Oh, I believe it. Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Is somebody going to say, "Is this just a
question of a Democrat who feels she's not getting her message out and
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: No. It isn't. I mean I get
reelected, I've done extremely well in my district because people
appreciate that I fight for things. I think all Americans would feel
the same way I do exactly if we just had the ability to tell them.
Reinstating the fairness doctrine would make a major difference in this
BILL MOYERS: What does your bill before Congress
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: So far, it just reinstates [the
fairness doctrine.] But you know, I've been giving some thought to it
this week. I will in no way do anything to hurt the first amendment.
I'd die for it. I certainly don't want to do anything about censorship
or anything. I simply want equal time. As simple as we can make it is
that we simply want to reinstate it. That people have an opportunity to
give them an opposing view, that you can't own a radio station in the
United States that simply gives one side all day long.
BILL MOYERS: So you're primarily concerned about radio?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: No. I'm concerned about television as well.
But radio is probably where we're going to get the biggest problems in
trying to get this done, because people have the radio on all day. They
listen to it. And I think that says a lot. I think we can see that
reflected in what people are thinking and feeling today.
BILL MOYERS: You know people say well, "Yes, it is in principle
true that the government, the people passed to the television and radio
companies the right to use the airwaves, the public spectrum." But
cable's a different baby altogether. Cable is unregulated.
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Are you
proposing the fairness doctrine for Fox News or MSNBC?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: You bet.
BILL MOYERS: You are?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Yes. Fairness isn't going to hurt anybody. I
just can't imagine these people who want to fight against fairness. And
I noticed that just recently, I believe President Clinton said that the
1996 Telecommunications Bill was probably one of his worst mistakes?
BILL MOYERS: He signed it?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: You see
this is what's happening out there. People I think are really saying,
"Wait a minute. This has gone way too far."
Well you know, someone would say that you've been elected to Congress
repeatedly since 1986. So clearly the loss of the fairness doctrine
didn't prevent you…
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Didn't impede me. No.
Because I'm able to buy advertising. In today's world, a candidate who
is not on television is not real. Nobody knows about them. They
basically don't exist.
BILL MOYERS: People contribute money for you to pay for
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: And that's the way it goes.
Back in the old days, you know we used to have door hangers, billboards,
and all those kind of things. But mostly now, with most candidates for
Congress they simply raise money for television and hand it over.
BILL MOYERS: When your constituents in your district listen to
talk radio, what are they hearing? Is there a lot of right wing talk
radio in your radio?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Oh yes, absolutely.
Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, the whole nine yards.
MOYERS: Are you saying that Rush Limbaugh…
SLAUGHTER: Rush Limbaugh has every right to be on there. But that
radio station has to give equal time to another point of view.
BILL MOYERS: If you get the fairness doctrine back, Rush Limbaugh
is still going to be on the air and Sean Hannity's going to still be on
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, of course. I mean…
BILL MOYERS: What will be the difference?
SLAUGHTER: The difference would be that there would have to be
somebody there saying, "Come in." The fact is, what we're talking about
with fairness is that a radio station, television station that has
opinion, has to give an opposing opinion a chance. And I think that
that's terribly important to us. It's not asking much. And we're not
as informed as we ought to be.
BILL MOYERS: Now we have the
internet. Anybody can say what they will, when they want to say it… And
we know that a lot of these bloggers that we know about on the internet
that get picked up and circulated to major media. So there is an
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: There is an antidote now, except everybody is
not on the internet. Everybody has no access to see what they're
talking about. I don't think there's any question that MoveOn when they
organized against further consolidation of media, and had over two
million e-mails going into the FCC, made a big impression.
I think the Sinclair thing is also somewhat resolved. I have to say at
the same time, I think that the internet had an effect on that.
BILL MOYERS: Some conservative writers have said that, "Look,
Congresswoman, the market worked. When Sinclair tried to insert his
politics views into a commercial field, the public reacted, the bloggers
reacted, the opposition reacted. And Sinclair changed its policy."
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well we didn't have that a couple, three years
ago. But I'm not sure we can just leave it to that. That we can hope
that the bloggers will be enough to counteract it. The fact that
Sinclair wanted to do it in the first place, indicates that they had no
restrictions on them of any sort, and apparently that they thought it
was there to use as they saw fit.
It's a little difficult once the owners of Sinclair have already
declared their preference and given huge amounts of money to one party
to even when they would do this, not to say this is one step forward,
further of what they want to do to support their candidate.
But now people are saying, "Well wait a minute. We shouldn't just hear
from one side of this issue. There must be some reason those people in
Congress are doing this. We would like to hear from them or their
supporters or people who agree with them to see what is it. What's
going on here? What is it that we need to know about this legislation?"
Just hearing it from one side is not sufficient. In fact, it's
BILL MOYERS: You're saying that your fairness
doctrine would simply mean that if a radio station or television station
offers one position, like Rush Limbaugh, on a bill or a campaign of
President or an election, they should also have people who disagree with
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Absolutely. They should not
be putting their own bias and their own feelings out on their radio
station because they think they own it. It has to be done as a public
trust and in the public interest.
BILL MOYERS: But the first
amendment guarantees the right of free press.
SLAUGHTER: If they owned the airwaves, then I'd probably have no
complaint. But they don't. It belongs to us. Part of our democracy.
It's part of the ability that we have to contact our citizens. It's a
way that we want our children to grow up with some understanding of what
this country is about and what it's based on and what their choices are.
BILL MOYERS: You've been up against the big broadcasters
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: I have.
BILL MOYERS: So
what makes you think you can win now?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: So
many things are happening in the country. I have a grandson that's a
sophomore at George Washington. He asked me to come and speak to the
Young Democrats. I've been doing that for years. It was always five
kids in a room.
So I called him on the way and said, "Where's this held?" He said,
"Grand Ballroom." And I thought, "Oh, that's gonna look good." Over
300 students, standing room. I've never seen that. I've been in this
business a long time.
There is a new sense in this country. A porter this morning at the
Rochester airport said to me, "Everybody's gotta get out." He started
ticking them off. "Senior citizens, all the minorities, gays,
everybody, this is it. The country is really up for grabs here." And I
think that part of it, and the reason we are in this position that we
are in, and perhaps part of the reason the polls are the way they are,
are what people hear.
They may hear whatever they please and whatever they choose. And of
course they always have the right to turn it off. But that's not good
enough either. The fact is that they need the responsibility of the
people who are licensed to use our airwaves judiciously and responsibly
to call them to account if they don't.
BILL MOYERS: Who decides what fairness is? What is fair? What's
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, in political circles, it's
the equal time piece where if one candidate gets to say something on the
air, equal time, no matter what it is, is given to the opponent, again
But fairness can't be that difficult. Surely, we have evolved to the
stage here in this century that we can understand some sort of balance,
some sort of sense. To me it is a feeling that my country is spilling
out hatred and lies on many, many of these stations to people who hear
nothing but that, who never believe or hear any countervailing opinion.
I think this is one of the most dangerous things in the world, and it
actually cuts out a point of view of half of America. And anything that
we own as Americans, as a government, like the radio and television
waves, should not be used in that way.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the major broadcasters are
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Sure! It was their
lobbyists that killed the little bill I had on giving opponents a little
bit of time on free television. Yes, I'm saying that.
They won't come out and say it themselves. They don't have to. They
hire a lobbying firm in Washington that will spend you know, $11 million
for that one amendment that I had.
Unfortunately for us campaigns coincide with football season, and it
kind of sort of makes it a little hard sometimes for because that time
goes at such an extraordinarily high commercial rate to let us in at a
BILL MOYERS: You raised Sinclair. Did the broadcast of that
controversial documentary critical of Kerry, STOLEN HONOR, did that
really matter? I mean throughout the Presidential campaign, there were
newspaper editorials, there were cable channels covering the campaign.
There was the Internet. And in the end, what difference does it make
that a company like Sinclair shows a film criticizing Kerry?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, let me tell you why it matters. One of
the things that I'm distressed about, and I am a true patriot, is that I
think what they've done with this film and others, they have called into
question the medals won by every soldier, sailor in this country.
When you can slime three Vietnam heroes in four years and you can
question a man's Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts and
the military sits there… The Navy finally quietly on the hush said,
"Those medals were deserved." You know, it was a terrible thing that's
been done to our heroes. It's an awful thing that they would do this to
him, in order to keep him from being the President of the United States
when it's something that is based on falsehood. This is what I'm
talking about. To spew this out all day long based on untruths is awful.
I mean I'm glad we've got these fact-checkers out there. But they have
not checked those ads very well.
How in the world can we say we are exporting democracy all over the
world and we don't have it here at home?
BILL MOYERS: You think that stations, radio and television that
are licensed should be required to offer an alternative. Would you feel
this way if Rush Limbaugh were a Democrat, a liberal?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Yes, I would. Yes, I would. I have no
question about that. I think it's just so important, because I'm not
sure Americans have a chance to know what's going on. Now, I know the
news comes so fast and furiously. But I go out and I make speeches, and
I always make it a point to really, "Let me tell you what's going on.
Let me tell you what's in Washington, what you're not hearing."
People are uniformly stunned. They can't believe. They couldn't
believe that Medicare bill. And that the Democrats were shut out of the
room, or that Charlie Rangel and the Democrats in the Ways and Means
Committee were gonna be arrested by the Capitol police for using the
Ways and Means Library. I mean, this is outrageous. We'll never put a
stop to this kind of action, unless people know it.
BILL MOYERS: Where were the journalists?
SLAUGHTER: Where were they? Where were they? I think Washington is
covered very poorly. I've got a couple newspapers that I'd walk 100
miles to get. But for the most part, I think, as I said, they take it
off of the wires.
BILL MOYERS: You're saying that the press
didn't cover these stories and that talk radio skewed the issue?
LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Talk radio didn't want to mention it. I bet you
that nobody's ever heard Rush Limbaugh say anything about Tom DeLay and
what he did and his ethics problems. He's not gonna talk about that.
But should America know or not that the Majority Leader, the Majority
Leader has turned the whole Congress upside down and that what Americans
learned on how a bill is passed has no relationship at all to what's
going on in Washington now. I think America wants to know that. I want