Channel surfing the other night, I caught a glimpse of Lou Dobbs on CNN waxing indignant about something Bill Clinton had said about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) possibly revisiting the Fairness Doctrine. What got Dobbs’s panties in a bunch was Clinton’s suggestion that there might be needed a bit more “balance” on talk radio. Dobbs claimed that this idea was poppycock because CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest of the media are bastions of radical liberalism. In his view right-wing talk radio “balances” out the liberal bias of the rest of the mainstream media. But Dobbs is dead wrong. The FCC needs to take a new look at the Fairness Doctrine along with a lot of other things.
Over the past few decades there have been profound changes in how the FCC rules and regulates the public airwaves and all of these have favored corporations at the expense of the public interest. It was President Ronald Reagan’s FCC Chair, Mark Fowler, a former lawyer for broadcasters, who famously said: “Television is just another appliance. It’s a toaster with pictures.” The Reagan administration, with Chairman Fowler leading the charge, started the ball rolling when it instituted five sweeping changes in the way the FCC had done business for decades, all of them benefiting corporations and broadcasters.
The Reagan administration and a Republican-dominated FCC took the following steps:
- They eliminated regulations that required broadcasters to dedicate a percentage of airtime to news and public service programs, which immediately affected the quality of children’s and public affairs programming.
- They raised the ceiling on the amount of advertising a station could run each hour, which increased the number of commercials and institutionalized the fifteen-second sound bite.
- FCC Chair Fowler and his buddies abolished the log-keeping requirement that had helped outside groups monitor the quality of programming with the option to challenge television licenses if the public service dimension was found lacking.
- Fowler convinced the Democratic Congress to raise the limit on the number of TV stations a company could own from five to twelve, which predictably set off merger mania among media corporations.
- The Reagan administration abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which sought to make broadcasting licenses contingent on stations fulfilling their obligations to air controversial issues and provide a balanced, factual presentation to the public. This last step was too much for a Democratic Congress to swallow and it passed legislation to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan vetoed the bill. Congress then inserted the provision into a larger spending bill but after Reagan threatened another veto the Democrats capitulated.
These Reagan era regulatory “reforms,” along the President Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which produced greater concentration of media ownership and gave us Fox News, should be revisited and modified and some form of the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated. Giant corporations for far too long have dominated our political debate and news coverage skewing them to serve a narrow set of financial and class interests.
There is no way a company like Clear Channel should be allowed to own over 1,200 radio stations blaring Rush Limbaugh or one of his many imitators over the public airwaves morning, noon, and night. President Barack Obama should provide his FCC clear guidelines that will undo some of the damage that has been done to our media system since the time Reagan and his “supply-siders” took over the country.
by Joseph Palermo Why do Lou Dobbs, Bernie Goldberg, Bill O’Reilly and the rest of those overpaid, paranoid television personalities fear the Fairness Doctrine so much? Could it be because if it were reinstated they would have to put aside the propaganda and enter into a real public debate?
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
Reprinted with permission from the author.