WASHINGTON — After conservative radio talk show hosts helped bury an immigration bill, Republican Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott complained that "talk radio is running America."
Lott suggested a remedy that immediately got talk-show hosts talking: He suggested bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, which would force broadcasters to provide more political balance on the nation's airwaves.
"It's absurd," said Mike Shanin, a self-described conservative radio talk show host in Kansas City, Mo.
Shanin said there's no doubt that liberals have been left behind in the world of talk radio and that it makes perfect economic sense: "Look, these are businesses, just like newspapers are businesses. If liberal talk worked, it would be on. It's been tried."
With their industry suddenly on the defensive, talk show hosts are trying to ward off any intervention from Congress.
Scott Parks, Shanin's co-host, said that reviving the Fairness Doctrine would "make radio extremely boring." He said it's clear that talk radio had a lot to do with pressuring members of Congress to vote against the immigration bill last month but that critics are overestimating its influence.
"Keep in mind it's not that (conservative talk hosts) Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity convinced millions and millions of Americans that this bill was bad," Parks said. "These people most likely didn't like this bill to begin with and it was listening to Rush and whomever that spawned them into action."
Talk radio contains 10 times as much conservative talk as progressive or liberal talk, according to a study released last month by The Center for American Progress, a research and educational institute that works for "progressive and pragmatic solutions," and Free Press, a group that focuses on media competitiveness.
The report, called "The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio," found that of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial stations, 91 percent of the talk was conservative, while 9 percent was progressive. Ninety-two percent of the stations did not broadcast a single minute of progressive talk, according to the study.
Those numbers are providing ammunition for critics.
"Unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way," California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on a recent Sunday television talk show.
Shanin, who worked in radio when the Fairness Doctrine was in effect, said he believes it resulted in less political debate because so many station owners didn't want to bother with its requirements.
"Smaller radio stations - and they are in the vast majority in this country - chose to not address many controversial issues, because they did not want to go through the hassle of trying to find the proponents and the opponents and people of other points of view," he said.
The talk show hosts have found plenty of friends in Washington.
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said any attempt to revive the Fairness Doctrine "ought to be dead on arrival."
"Some Democrats may not like talk radio, but that does not give them the right to use the heavy hand of government to regulate it," he said.
No one has yet introduced legislation to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. But before Congress left town for its weeklong July 4 break, the House passed an amendment to a federal spending bill that would block all funding for implementation of the Fairness Doctrine. And separate bills were introduced in both the House and Senate that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating it.
Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, one of the House co-sponsors, said the Fairness Doctrine would "effectively and dangerously mandate what can and cannot be said."
Another House co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Connie Mack of Florida, called it "a left-wing idea that only the likes of self-proclaimed communist Hugo Chavez could love."
"Just as we've seen the systematic elimination of a free and independent media in Chavez's Venezuela, some Democrats in Congress want to impose their own type of `check' on our free and independent media in the Untied States," he said.
The doctrine was repealed in 1987, giving station owners the right to fill their programming with political content as they see fit.
Conservative talk show hosts point to the recent failure of Air America as evidence that liberal talk radio doesn't sell with the public.
And Shanin said that, unlike the old days when the Fairness Doctrine was deemed necessary, the public now has access to a broad array of choices to get other political views, including the Internet, cable television, satellite radio and newspapers.
"If somebody is interested in finding an opposing point of view or something different than a talk show host on some radio station, they'd have to be an idiot not to be able to find it," he said.