The Fairness Doctrine, and its discontents

Much righty bloviating has been devoted of late to the bogeyman #563 of their ilk, The Fairness Doctrine. Besides being briefly mentioned by a total of one democratic congresswoman, however, no one has suggested its return, much less implied that its renewal was intended to “silence” such worthy keepers of the flame of freedom as Michael “savage” Weiner and Rush Limbaugh, although they repeatedly told their audiences otherwise.  Their bleatings were greeted by a collective yawn outside of certain megachurches and militia meetings, and it seemed that the matter was forgotten amid the furors over birth certificates and Barney Frank’s sex life, even in those fetid quarters.  Then, along comes a visibly drug-addled Limbaugh, declaring that he was hoping for presidential (and American) failure, because anything better would “hurt Republicans.”  Time to pull out the Fairness Doctrine, fatso.  Our airwaves are dominated by treacherous, self-interested charlatans that are nothing more than a corporate financed propaganda network operating against the interests of all Americans.  And the companies that own them are trying to keep it that way.

I listen to “Progressive Talk” stations in Portland, Los Angeles, and Seattle, which each have one, count ‘em, one such station.  Each city has many more conservative stations, which although they are much more politically extreme, never identify their ideology, preferring “News Talk” or other misleading handles.  Thus, the populations of overwhelmingly liberal cities are offered talk radio, sold as impartial, that is 90% right wing, while the remaining 10% must correctly identify its supposed “bias,” right in the name.

Conveniently, the conglomerates who operate these stations, like Sinclair, Clear Channel, and a few others (consolidation and “grandfathering” deals for Clear Channel has left few players left in the field) are reaping the profits of both formats, in several cases owning every station in smaller markets, so they can afford to run several stations of low-rated righties, and let the progressive station help foot the bill for their preferred brand of politics.  And they’ve been rewarded for their devotion to the cause by Republican deregulation, beginning with Reagan’s scrapping of the Fairness Doctrine in 1986.  License applications, formerly subject to challenge for inattention to public service requirements, became pro-forma affairs, automatically renewed with no scrutiny.  Flat legal limits of outlets within markets were routinely cast aside to allow politically favored giants to buy up the competition, awaiting forthcoming “reforms,” which nearly always sailed through, allowing even cross ownership of newspapers and the majority of the radio stations, with a TV station or two thrown in as well, within the same market.

Clearly something, whether it be the Fairness Doctrine or a drastic and mandatory of divestiture of outlets from all media conglomerates, or ideally a combination of both,  is the only answer to the problem.  Based on any  reasonable interpretation of the early telecommunications laws, which recognized the dangers of propagandized airwaves, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, which recognized the dangers of monopolies, media monopolies are not only dangerous, but illegal, or were until very recently.  The power to monopolize and the power to propagandize, combined, are worse than the sum of their parts, not unlike the multiplier effect of narcotics.

Thanks, Druggie Limbaugh, for reminding us.


  1. Dirigo says:

    Think of any time in your life when you listened to local radio or watched local television and felt the person on the air actually had a connection to you and had some sense of the neighborhood you lived in. How quaint.

    In the early days of American broadcasting, there was that feeling because there was an effort made by broadcasters to connect with communities. There were broadcasters in those long ago days who took great pride in that work. A lot of on-air talent then was more than a collection of local “personalities.”

    The Fairness Doctrine had an influence because those bidding for a slice of the spectrum – public property then and now – had to show some reasonable connection to the community. Content, or a balance of it when it came to political speech, was a concern of regulators; but it was expected, without a terrible stink way back when, that broadcasters existed to serve their communities.

    This never was terribly controversial until promoters of marker deregulation made it that way.

    Well, I’m not sure about bringing back the Fairness Doctrine based on content; but some fairness in the distribution of the spectrum, based on investment tied to communities where the radio or television stations operate would seem to make sense.

    My last dreary days in radio included some work for Clear Channel. Clear Channel is just a broadcast behemoth with no ties to anything or any place, except its bottom line. Whatever blather they may spout out to the contrary is just that, blather. Very hot air.

    Think of Limbaugh.

    He’s not connected to anything except the hot air of his shtick, whether political or vaudevillian.

    He has his following, and that’s okay, but I don’t believe for a minute he cares a whit for any of his dittoheads, wherever they actually live.

    His existence is a complete product of advertising, ratings, and the exploitation of a political era and the interests that drove it.

    It has nothing to do with you, your family, or where you live.

  2. bystander.again says:

    Pardon. Egregiously off topic.

    Yo!, Admin-Chad.

    When is the Cocktailhag going to get one of those nifty little icons that shows up in the Firefox bookmark links. Surely, WordPress must offer some options in that regard. Seems like a martini glass might have some appeal. Long neck beer bottle? Wine glass? Or, about that sketch at the top of the page…

  3. cocktailhag says:

    Thanks, bystander, Chad seems to respond well to nagging.
    Dirigo… I read a great book, “Fighting for Air,” by Eric Klinenberg, which opens with a chilling story of a chemical waste spill in a small midwestern town, and thanks to Clear Channel, there are no radio stations to report it. Everything is automated, with predictably disastrous results. It might make the book Saloon one day.
    Locally owned radio still existed in my youth, and it was like you said. A prominent local family who cared about the community got rich, provided a lot of good jobs, and informed people what was going on. That crap is so over now.
    People always tell me that I should work in radio, because of my deep, authoritative voice; for what? The eleven jobs there are?
    The change gas happened so fast people don’t even realize it’s happened.

    • Dirigo says:

      Yeah, there are many anecdotes about how local coverage has ceased to exist; and the joke, or the deception is, the stations constantly run promos about how in touch they are “with you” and about how much they care “about you,” while running satellite shows from major markets.

      I left Amarillo, Texas in the early ’80s after two years at the CBS television affiliate and a year at the CBS radio affiliate. I wasn’t able to get a deal in a larger market that I liked and got sick of being in West Texas for three years; so I packed up, and drove home to the Boston area. I kept doing radio, part time; but by then I was aware that radio news, as it was practiced in earlier days, was done for. Every station I worked at – and I refused to work in any other way than as a freelancer – was gutting the news department. Older, experienced hands were let go; younger, less experienced people were hired for less money. And the staffs were cut, from 15 to ten, from 10 to 5, from 5 to 2. Or, one. It’s happened everywhere.

      Radio news is no more.

      Technology obviously has had an influence, in addition to the deregulatory itch and the concentration of ownership.

      But when all is said and done, local coverage of communities, the local connection between broadcasters and the communities the stations operate in, has been undermined.

      When I was in West Texas, it took me a while realize the importance of weather reports. Farmers and ranchers relied on a certain kind of accurate forecasting, which of course has been a staple of reliable broadcast service. I brushed off, at first, the emphasis placed on tornado coverage, even though I saw strong ties between government tracking of tornadoes and the commercial media reporting of them.

      I just didn’t think much about it, because I was from the East. Tornadoes? – I said. What’s the big deal?

      And then I was assigned to cover a major tornado that ripped through Wichita Falls, northwest of Dallas. I saw how much damage those things could do, and how quickly they could do it.

      One story that has stuck with me about how much of an empty husk radio has become came from the Dakotas somewhere.

      There was a storm approaching, a big one. And the police were so concerned they started calling the local radio station to offer advisories. A few calls were made. A bit of time went by, and then the police realized that they were leaving messages on a phone machine, and there were no call backs, and nothing was put on the air. They then found out that there was no one at the station. The last time the police made contact with the station there were a few news people actually on duty. But over time those people had all been let go, and the whole station was operating on automation.

      I can’t recall if this was a Clear Channel operation or not. Wouldn’t be surprised.

  4. Mona says:

    This is one area where we disagree, Cocktailhag. The Fairness Doctrine simply puts the govt in charge of how speech should be “balanced” on radio and TeeVee. As if there were only two sides to any issue.

    I don’t want Limbaugh compelled to put a “liberal” like Chris Matthews on his show, or Air America to put some dittohead on.

    Think a moment of how the FD would have been implemented under the Bush years, or even now, by Villagers who have not the slightest clue what actual balance is. Further, with the advent of cable, online radio and blogs, we are no longer in the situation which the FD was originally adopted to address — we are not any longer limited to the Big Three networks, or A.M. talk radio.

    Let me quote the great Glenzilla, in an interview he gave me for a now-defunct blog (the owner’s business collapsed, and he could no longer subsidize it beginning last fall.)

    AoTP: You’ve [Greenwald] done an enormous amount of valuable, original investigative work at your blog, in magazine articles and in your books exposing the corruption of the Establishment media; it’s willingness to obediently spew GOP talking points and narratives about domestic and foreign policy, and to focus on petty and inane trivialities such as Obama’s bowling score or how much John Edwards pays for his haircuts. Some feel a resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine is at least a partial answer to our media malaise. Do you?

    GG: I tend to be a First Amendment absolutist and cringe at the prospect of government regulation over our means of expression. I understand the sentiment behind the Fairness Doctrine. I believe that media consolidation under the control of an ever-shrinking number of large, homogeneous corporations is a serious threat to free political discourse and investigative journalism.

    But I believe that developing alternatives to that monolith — such as those developing on the Internet and elsewhere — is a far more attractive solution to that problem. I don’t understand how anyone, after watching the abuses of the Bush administration for the last eight years, would want to vest in government officials the power to judge the content of what goes over the airwaves. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume competence and benign intent on the part of political officials when deciding how much power to give them. We ought to assume the worst about them — about their abilities, integrity and motives — and only then, based on those suppositions, should we decide how much power, and what specific powers, we’re willing to vest in them.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Mona, I suppose that content-sensitive requirements would never be a desirable goal, although I think when something calls itself “news,” the standards are a bit different. Talk radio, on the other hand, builds its audience through political and personal loyalty, so opposite sides would never work within a single station. Mostly, I resent people like Limbaugh and Savage airing on a station called “NewsTalk.” It’s not; it’s conservative talk, or views from the right, or somesuch, as the progressive stations call themselves. With that Orwellian doublespeak, and a 90/10 wavelength dominance, it’s a clever way to silence liberal views, even render them something less than American. Which of course they do, every day.
      Ownership, of course, is the overarching issue. Too much of our sources in too few hands.
      Just talking about the fairness doctrine, especially since it makes the righties go nuts, draws attention to the larger issue, which I think is a good thing.