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In 2007, conservative talk radio comprised 91 percent of the talk radio spectrum. It seems that hasn't changed much, and it may be getting worse; four progressive talk stations have been shut down just since the 2012 election.

Imagine that the great talk radio empires of the right are protected by vast networks of castles with moats. Right wing talkers in their boundless hordes man the parapets, shouting down to the populace how conservative political principles are vastly superior to anything espoused by those few voices on the left. And any progressive talk radio voice may be hushed simply by arranging schedule to stifle their message.

In essence, that's what we see in the talk radio environment. In the absence of any sort of fairness doctrine (which was throttled during the Reagan administration, and the last vestiges of which were eliminated just last year), this circumstance of right wing dominance is perpetuated around the clock, week after week, year after year.

But there is a law still on the books, narrowly drawn and with specific purpose, that seeks not cultural fairness, but electoral fairness for a specific period (sixty days) just prior to any electoral contest. Unlike the moribund and in some quarters controversial Fairness Doctrine, the Zapple Doctrine is described by the Broadcast Law Blog as "potentially [having] some vitality".

the Zapple Doctrine compelling a station to provide time to the supporters of one candidate if the station provides time to the supporters of another candidate in a political race, has never specifically been abolished...  Zapple, also known as "quasi-equal opportunities", has been argued in various recent controversies, including in connection with the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry, when Kerry supporters claimed that they should get equal time to respond should certain television stations air the anti-Kerry Swift Boat "documentary."  We have written about Zapple many times (see, for instance, here, in connection with the Citizens United decision).  What would be beneficial to broadcasters would be a determination as to whether Zapple has any remaining vitality, as some have felt that this doctrine is justified independent of the Fairness Doctrine.

  —Broadcast LAW BLOG, August 23, 2011

Yet the Zapple Doctrine is so little known among the general public, it is one of just half a dozen topics in the known universe that doesn't yet have a Wikipedia entry.

Sue Wilson of the Media Action Center has written extensively about the Zapple Doctrine. Her Daily Kos diaries deserve more attention than they have received.

The Media Action Center has sought to raise awareness, and to invoke the Zapple Doctrine for elections in 2012. Their efforts have been rebuffed by the FCC. According to Chief of the FCC's Political Bureau, Mark Berlin, it is as if the castles and moats don't exist unless candidates and their supporters lay siege:

For the Zapple Doctrine to be invoked, the supporters of the opposing candidate would have to specifically ask the station for air time.  If the station refused, the supporters could then appeal to the FCC, but no such Zapple complaint has been made in at least eight years.  Therefore, there was no violation of the Zapple Doctrine by the stations here, and even if there were, that would not be a basis for the denial of a license renewal, since programming has nothing to do with licensing in the first place.

  —FCC Political Bureau via Media Action Center

In sending this reply, the FCC is telegraphing a very obvious message to the radio networks it is chartered to regulate: you don't need to worry about this. The argument that "programming has nothing to do with licensing" is outrageous and specious. Would the FCC grant a license to a radio station that (for example) openly advocated genocide? I think not.

What leverage, then, does the FCC reserve to enforce such congressionally-mandated requirements? In the aftermath of Citizens United, if the FCC seriously considered issuing mere fines as a mechanism to enforce the Zapple Doctrine, media empires with indirect access to vast millions of dollars in campaign donations may simply consider such fines a cost of doing (their right wing) business.

Ultimately, as this FCC response so clearly indicates, whether the Zapple Doctrine is successfully invoked will be a political decision. Talk radio hosts will argue that they qualify for certain exceptions to the doctrine. According to Talkers, exemption "is not always a slam dunk." Yet the right wing talk shows are more likely to succeed in shutting out progressive voices if the FCC's decision is allowed to be made in Mitt Romney's behind-the-scenes "quiet rooms".

It is time for all of us to familiarize ourselves with the Media Action Center, and with the Zapple Doctrine, and we must do so well in advance of the next congressional election. To ignore this vital tool for electoral fairness is to allow right wing talkers to once again go unchallenged. And, perhaps, to allow conservatives to once again retain control of the U.S. Congress.

The Zapple Doctrine "potentially has some vitality". Whether that comes to fruition depends upon me, and upon you!

Please do whatever you can to support the work and goals of the Media Action Center. Democracy itself is at stake in this cause.

The diarist is active in Flush Rush on Facebook:
Rush Limbaugh's talk radio career is in a slow downward spiral in part because of the activism of consumers, volunteers, and activists who seek to hold Rush accountable for his hate speech. One very active group in this cause is Flush Rush on Facebook. Flush Rush and other, similar groups use the StopRush Database to inform advertisers about where their ads are appearing.

Please consider joining. Small donations are also accepted to fund data storage; visit StopRush for more information.

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