The July 21 issue of The Economist includes a widely-reprinted article entitled “Let the Blowhards Blow”, published as a column in the “Lexington” section, the weekly commentary on US politics named after a town where the British and Americans, in The Economist’s words, had “a fairly colourful exchange of views during the American War of Independence.” I like that…. So British….
The article attacks the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC federal rule, in place from 1949-87, that guaranteed “ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views” on the public airwaves. Reinstatement of TFD is being supported by Senators Richard Durbin, John Kerry, Dianne Feinstein, and, remarkably, Trent Lott, among others. A phalanx of opponents, including the President, other Republican-led politicians, broadcasters, and many free-speech advocates (other than me) are against it.
Calling The Fairness Doctrine “a hangover from a prehistoric technological era” and “an assault on free speech”, “Lexington” makes an entertaining case for leaving TFD in the deep-freeze, claiming that today’s broadcast environment is more conducive to free speech than a return to the requirements of TFD.
“Fair” enough. I’ve heard this same line of argument from many other opponents of TFD whose opinions I respect. But, in the interest of fairness (pun intended) I respectfully beg to differ.
I remember the exact moment in 1988 when I first heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I was driving down a country road connecting Herndon and Vienna, Virginia at about 10 in the morning, breezily listening to WMAL AM-630, the venerable, middle-of-the road Washington news and entertainment station. At one point I heard the announcer, whom I had never heard before and turned out to be Limbaugh, make a statement excoriating “liberals” and promoting, by name, a “Republican solution”. I was apoplectic.
Having been raised during the era of the Fairness Doctrine, I knew that what I had just heard was illegal. I was amazed and confused that WMAL, a bastion of the Washington establishment, would make such an obvious blunder. But I was mistaken. TFD was repealed by the Reagan-era FCC in 1987. This was 1988. I would need to spend the next nineteen years coming to terms with this brave, new, nasty world of broadcast radio.
By today’s standards, Limbaugh’s words in 1988 sound remarkably tame, don’t they? Why would I be offended? The radio’s full of this type of thing now, right? But that’s exactly my point; the radio wasn’t full of this type of thing before 1987.
I invite you to go back in your mind to the days before 1988. Before 1988, stations licensed on the publicly-owned airwaves, emphasis on “publicly-owned”, were required to give “equal time” to other points of view. This requirement provided incentive for the broadcasters to be “fair”. It emphasized their responsibility as a public trust in their community. It allowed for divergent points of view, but it didn’t allow stations to become one-sided and extremist.
As public policy it was imperfect; it tended to support a two-party approach and often excluded creative ideas. But it was based on common sense, and it caused our public discourse to be characterized by common respect and civility.
Is that idea so scary? Having lived during the era of the Fairness Doctrine I know that free-speech didn’t suffer greatly. Divergent viewpoints were aired. The public was generally well-served by their stations on the public airwaves.
Wanna know what is scary? The specter of extremist, one-sided broadcasters who use the public’s airwaves to advance their own partisan agendas, combined with the rise of media conglomerates, creating centralized broadcast behemoths that block out diverse voices and don’t answer to their local communities. Now that’s scary.
So what do we do? Do you prefer Durbin’s poison or Dubya’s?
I doubt that we can fashion an FCC regulation that provides for both the market-driven media environment of the current-day and the requirements of the Fairness Doctrine. But given a choice between the food-fight corporatization that is present-day broadcasting and the notion of a Fairness Doctrine, properly updated, I choose the latter.
“Let the Blowhards Blow” indeed, but let’s make sure there’s room at everyone’s table for all the blowhards, and let’s treat each other like human beings.