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Jeff Jacoby

Musings, random and otherwise

TWENTY YEARS ago the Federal Communications Commission scrapped the never-very-fair Fairness Doctrine. Now talk of a revival is in the air as Democrats, complaining that talk radio is dominated by conservatives, have started lobbying for Washington to get back in the business of refereeing public discourse.

"It's time to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine," Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois announced on June 27. Similar noises have been made by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and California’s Diane Feinstein. From across the aisle, there has been some pushback: On Wednesday, GOP Senators Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Jim DeMint of South Carolina offered legislation to block the FCC from resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine. Better than a debate over the Fairness Doctrine, though, would be a debate over whether radio and television should be regulated by government in the first place. The standard justification for such regulation is that the airwaves are public property. There are only a finite number of broadcast frequencies, the statists say. If the government didn't own and license them, the result would be chaos.

Well, the supply of land is finite, too . Yet no one argues that real estate should be nationalized and licensed by the feds. It is obvious that land can be bought and sold in a free market without resulting in anarchy. Why should the broadcast spectrum be any different?

The Democratic presidential candidates have agreed to another televised debate, this one focusing on issues related to homosexuality. The sponsors are the Human Rights Campaign, a gay activist lobby, and Logo, a gay-themed cable channel, which will broadcast the event live . Human Rights Campaign chairman Joe Solmonese will moderate, along with lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge.

They can call it a "debate," but it will likely be a parade of pander bears, each trying to outdo the other in pledging fealty to the gay-left agenda. Well, why not -- if I were a Democratic candidate, I'd also grab the chance for some face time before a friendly audience. Indeed, if I were a Republican candidate, I'd take part -- why pass up the free publicity and a chance to be seen and heard?

These are the same Democrats, of course, who refuse to debate on the Fox News Channel because they object to its political agenda. So be it. But what does it say about their priorities that they gladly court Logo's niche viewers, yet snub the far larger mainstream audience that watches Fox?

More evidence that the immigration crisis is really an assimilation crisis: the current flap in Boston over whether the names of candidates on Chinese-language ballots should be printed in English or transliterated into Chinese. Because such transliterations can have ludicrous unintended meanings -- Mayor Thomas Menino's name, for instance, could be read as "Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own" -- the state's top election official is insisting that the names remain in English. The US Justice Department and Chinese community activists insist that they be rendered in Chinese. Nobody, apparently, insists that American citizens voting in American elections should do so in the language of American civic life.

Bilingual ballots, mandated by federal law in 1992, are incompatible with the American tradition of E Pluribus Unum. A multitude of proud ethnic identities make up this country's vibrant cultural mosaic, but superseding them is a shared American identity indispensable to full-fledged citizenship. A crucial element of that identity is proficiency in English -- an element we undercut when we provide foreign-language ballots to citizens who don't share the common tongue.

Immigrants know that to follow a Patriots game, read a Boston street map, or order off the menu at Legal Sea Foods, learning English is a prerequisite. If that effort is worth making for football or a cup of chowder, surely it's worth making for the right to vote.

Journalists know their profession is not held in high esteem. In Britain last November, a national survey measuring the trustworthiness of 19 professions found that journalists ranked dead last. Even politicians managed to edge them out.

But it's one thing to know it in the abstract. It's something else to unexpectedly get your nose rubbed in it, as Diane Sawyer can attest.

"I wanted to sit on a jury once," Sawyer mentioned during "Good Morning America" on Thursday, "and the judge said to me, 'Can you tell the truth and be fair?' And I said, 'That's what journalists do.' And everybody in the courtroom laughed! It was the most hurtful moment I think I've ever had."

The more the press proclaims itself accurate and unbiased, the less the public seems to agree. It isn't clear that Sawyer grasped it, but there was a message in that laughter.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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