Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said in a letter to television executives on Friday that “national network news has devolved from fact-based journalism to surreptitious propaganda,” and he raised the specter of a congressional hearing to “explore network media bias in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.”
Cramer's timing is a bit odd. The election is Tuesday, meaning that any such hearing would come too late to affect coverage of the race (although, of course, the prospect of such a hearing is being raised in the campaign homestretch).
It is possible that Cramer, a strong supporter of Donald Trump, is merely throwing a symbolic grenade at a press corps that the Republican nominee derides on a daily basis. Cramer does not have a hearing on the books; his letter indicated that he has not even requested one. He simply said that he plans to ask for a hearing.
While this could be a hollow threat, Cramer clearly put some thought into it. He targeted only the terrestrial broadcasters — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — and suggested these networks could lose their government-issued licenses.
As you are well aware, the privilege to broadcast a free signal is a privilege afforded to very few, and with it comes tremendous responsibility. The broadcast license awarded to you by the Federal Communications Commission is on behalf of the citizens. The spectrum your news is carried on is not yours alone but rather the property of a skeptical citizenry. Your FCC license and the liberty that comes with your First Amendment rights are not a license to broadcast anything you want or in any way you choose. Rather, this special freedom comes with basic moral and legal parameters.
It is unclear how Cramer would attempt to enforce his notions of media fairness. He wrote that he does not support the resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast networks to devote airtime to contrasting views on issues of public importance until its abolition in 1987.
In 2009, Democrats, led by Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, were the ones clamoring for some kind of mandatory balance on the airwaves. Back then, conservatives railed against the idea. Sean Hannity called the Fairness Doctrine an “assault on the First Amendment.” Newt Gingrich's term was “Affirmative Action for liberalism.”
The Senate voted 87-11 in 2009 to prohibit reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine — an indication of just how reluctant Congress is to crack down on the media. Based on history, the TV executives who received Cramer's letter on Friday probably aren't sweating it.