Let’s review the facts.
America is divided against itself and anger has become the new normal. Ideological divisions are destroying the civility of public discourse. The hostility between those of opposing world views is more pervasive than at any time since the Vietnam War. The 2016 Republican presidential campaign reached a new low. It was an embarrassment that damaged America’s reputation around the world.
Since the general election, many families have settled into camps of Trump and Hillary voters. Members of each group strongly believe that members of the other group have taken leave of their senses. They either avoid the subject at family gatherings or avoid each other completely. Even spousal relationships are breaking down and businesses are getting boycotted along political and ideological lines.
A growing number of Americans across the political spectrum are so angry and frustrated that they want Congress to form a circular firing squad.
All the while, President Trump, who took the 2016 Presidential race into the gutter, continues to make matters worse by pouring gasoline on the flames of discord he created instead of speaking words of reason, calm and unity.
President Trump’s ongoing contributions to the verbal chaos are substantial but a number of policies paved the way to the current breakdown of national comity.
There is a growing consensus that the elimination of “The Fairness Doctrine” is the single largest contributor to the manifestation of nationwide verbal hostility, and if so, it’s the product of several decades of media deregulation.
The Fairness Doctrine was a 1949 FCC rule that required station owners to broadcast “honest, equitable, and balanced programming”. This replaced a 1941 rule called “The Mayflower Doctrine” which required broadcasters to “provide full and equal opportunity for the presentation to the public of all sides of public issues.”
The Mayflower Doctrine and The Fairness Doctrine prevented the rise of ideological talk radio because, under those rules, a station that aired half truths and “alternative facts” could be found liable and be subject to FCC fines and even license revocation.
Over the following 50 years, a large number of successful challenges to the Fairness Doctrine would eventually eliminate it. These challenges came in the form of Congressional mandates, Supreme Court decisions and FCC deregulation initiatives. Each time, the sanctity of the First Amendment was upheld.
The Fairness Doctrine was finally abolished in 1987 which gave rise to right wing talk radio.
Here are some highlights from pivotal decisions made by all three branches of government that opened the door to untethered, biased, and fact free bloviation on the public airwaves.
In 1974, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “Government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate”.
In 1985, the FCC released a report stating that the Fairness Doctrine hurt the public interest and violated free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In 1986, the 99th Congress directed the FCC to examine alternatives to the Fairness Doctrine and to submit a report to Congress on the subject.
In June of 1987, Congress attempted to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine but the legislation was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan.
On August 4th, 1987, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine.
On August 1st, 1988, with restrictions eliminated, Rush Limbaugh launched his nationally syndicated talk show which paved the path for hundreds of talkers to follow.
In February 1989, the FCC concluded that because of the many media voices in the marketplace, the Fairness Doctrine had been unconstitutional because it “restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters”.
In 1991, another attempt was made by Congress to revive the doctrine but it was stopped when President George H.W. Bush threatened another veto.
In the year 2000, The US Court of Appeals in D.C asked the FCC to justify rules that prohibited on air personal attacks and rules that prevented broadcasters from endorsing political candidates, but since the Fairness Doctrine had been eliminated, these corollary rules could not be enforced.
Since then, several more attempts have been made by Democratic Members of Congress to revive the Fairness Doctrine and all have failed.
In 2009, Mark Fowler, who chaired the FCC during President Reagan’s first term said this... “I believe the press that uses air and electrons must be as free from Government control as the press that uses paper and ink”.
When asked about the Fairness Doctrine, Bill Clinton said, “Well, you either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or we ought to have more balance on the other side, because essentially there’s always been a lot of big money to support the right wing talk shows”
On August 22, 2011, the FCC formally voted to repeal and remove ALL the language that had implemented and enforced the Fairness Doctrine, along with 88 other regulations, thus declaring “Anything Goes” regarding political speech on the public airwaves.
In my view, the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine is the single largest contributor to the spread of a new and virulent strain of toxic discourse that has seated itself in the public’s consciousness. Should we bring back the Fairness Doctrine? My answer is not only “NO” but “Hell No”.
So, what can progressives do to bridge the ideological divide and quiet the storm of discordant rhetoric?
Stay tuned for my next article and a possible answer.
Special note, In the late 1970s, Mark Fowler was the legal Counsel for a company I co-founded that eventually received a license for Radio Station KELG 1440 AM in Elgin, Texas which served Austin.
During the application process, I made several trips to D.C. I remember a conversation with Mark at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove where we debated the future of AM radio.
Mark proffered that Ronald Reagan would become the next President and he was determined to become Chairman of the FCC when it happened. His goal was to break up all the big AM clear channel stations and open the spectrum to many new broadcasters and most importantly, to end the Fairness Doctrine.
After listening to Mark’s plans, I remember thinking... “Yea sure Mark”
Fred can be contacted through KCAA Radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281) 599-9800