The End of the Fairness Doctrine and the Rise of Meanness
When I started doing this work in December, 1980, the Federal Communication Commission had a very powerful tool for regulating comment on the airwaves called the Fairness Doctrine. The rationale was that nobody can own the airwaves and, therefore, those airwaves are in the public domain. An FCC issuing licenses to use those airwaves has, it was argued, the right to insist on, in exchange for those licenses, an obligation to be truly “fair and balanced.” So, if opinion was stated on the air, the media outlet (TV and radio) had an obligation to air an opposing view.
I used the doctrine once to respond to a particularly obnoxious “The Rest of the Story” by Paul Harvey that WAEB was fond of airing. I only invoked the doctrine once. In those days, the electronic media was sparing in its use of editorial comment because of the doctrine.
Then came Ronald Reagan. President Reagan hated intervention in the marketplace and tossed the Fairness Doctrine.
I’m not fond of Ronald Reagan. The damage he did on government spending and taxation haunts us to this day. His foreign policy was akin to the Manifest Destiny policy of a century earlier. “Ketchup is a vegetable.” Peace-keeper missile. Iran-Contra. Spending eight years trying to kill Community Action Agencies like ours. Enough said.
But killing the Fairness Doctrine, a little-known move on his part, may have been the most damaging and long-lasting act of retreat from progress. It spawned Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, the radio careers of convicted felons G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North. And now we have Fox “News,” and all of its reactionary, hateful, truth-stretching, sometimes lying opinion midgets like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
I have nothing against thoughtful conservatives like George Will. But these other weirdos do nothing to contribute to thoughtful discord.
So, here we are. The country is mired in tough problems: climate change, a yawning income gap, an even bigger wealth gap, crumbling infrastructure, a massive public debt, a dysfunctional real estate market, stubborn poverty. These are problems that need attention. They need smart people, liberals and conservatives alike, who understand the dynamics of problem-solving.
Hannity, Beck, some of the extremists in Congress like those whose shouts of “You lie” indicate an intransigence that do not lend themselves to solving problems, should be ignored. Let’s return to civility. The reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine would be a good place to start.