Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
The easiest way to identify a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian is to mention Fox News on social media. It’s like reciting an ancient Gaelic incantation that makes the banshees rise from the swamp and scream their lamentations at the top of their voices. “Baaaaaan themmmmmm!” “The FCC should revoooooooke their license!” “Ruuuuuuuuupert!” And then they all get naked, hold hands around the sacrificial altar and say the magic words: Fairness Doctrine!
Now, these people only know two things about the Doctrine. One, it had the word “Fairness” in the title so it had to be, you know, “fair.” And two, Ronald Reagan was President when it was ditched and he was evil so it had to be good.
In their minds, the FCC was watching every television show and listening to every radio broadcast to make sure that everything was “fair” and that all points of view were being presented on every issue. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When promulgated in the late 1940s, the intent of the regulation was to make sure that broadcasters devoted a certain amount of time on their schedules to discuss local issues of a controversial nature in their communities. While regulators probably envisioned prime time round tables on zoning regulations with eminent voices from government and academia, what they got was a Sunday morning ghetto of bad talk shows with horrible sets and absolutely no audience.
It also had the effect of stripping broadcasters of their First Amendment rights to editorialize. If a public figure was perceived to be a raving lunatic, a crackpot, or reprobate a broadcaster would never say it because for every minute you talked about them it would be logged as a “personal attack” and subject to equal time for said lunatic. When you make it easier to say nothing then nothing gets said, including a bunch of stuff that absolutely needs to be said. So broadcasters who did editorials on their newscasts would reserve their holy righteousness to anti-litter campaigns, supporting charities and other banalities.
The Fairness Cult would be appalled by the truth. The FCC (and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission) has very rarely ever pursued broadcasters for content. License revocation has been reserved primarily for technical violations and financial malfeasance, the latter being at the heart of the downfall of RKO General.
The two most famous cases of license revocation center around a quack doctor and the other where a station owner simply told the FCC to pound sand.
The doctor, John R. Brinkley of Kansas, was both a charlatan and a radio pioneer. He had several years of legitimate medical training but ended up with a degree from a diploma mill. His entire career as a medical flimflam artist is too long to recount here, but suffice it to say that he became famous as the “goat gland doctor” who inserted goat testicles into the scrotal sacks of men with the promise of restoring their sexual virility, helping to turn one into “the ram that am with every lamb!” One of his patients actually got his wife pregnant and Brinkley found the new medium of radio the ideal place to promote his new procedure and launched his own station, KFKB in Kansas City. It would take years for both the FRC and the state medical board to catch up to him and when they did he hightailed to Mexico where he helped pioneer the “border blaster” of radio stations saturating the US airwaves with unbelievably high-powered radio signals beyond the reach of Washington authorities.
The one directly related to the Fairness Doctrine was Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC. But first, a little more background about the political use of the Doctrine. In 1963 the Kennedy Administration was concerned that right-leaning radio stations were endangering Kennedy’s re-election chances. Under the direction of political operative Kenneth O’Donnell and former NY Times reporter, Wayne Phillips, the White House, and the DNC created a monitoring program that led to hundreds of complaints to the FCC and free airtime for the Democrats. The real purpose, they admitted years later, was to harass the station owners and bully them into silence.
Then radio station WGCB in Red Lion, PA had a 15-minute program called “Christian Crusade” and on November 27, 1964 the Rev. Billy James Hargis took to task the author of an anti-Barry Goldwater book and blamed him for LBJ’s landslide victory and claimed that the author, Fred J. Cook, was a communist. The DNC bankrolled both Cook’s book and the Red Lion challenge all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1969 the court held for Cook. The rationale was that radio frequencies were scarce and that broadcasters held a monopoly with their licenses. While the license of Red Lion was not challenged, the ruling did allow the FCC to take the license of another Pennsylvania radio station, WXUR.
Ironically, station owners became so gun shy that they bent over backwards to give the new President, Richard Nixon, as much free airtime as he wanted. It wasn’t until Watergate that broadcasters became emboldened to take on Nixon and his administration.
If the rise of cable television in the 1980s made the scarcity argument obsolete, the internet has embalmed it, cremated it, and buried it for good measure.
When Rupert Murdoch bought controlling interest in DirecTV in 2003, opponents of the deal feared that he would ditch rivals MSNBC and CNN in favor of Fox News Channel. As a condition of the purchase the DOJ demanded guaranteed access to rival networks. Now, as the activists implore Comcast and AT&T to ditch FNC they are blissfully unaware or conveniently ignoring the fact that it was their own earlier Fox paranoia that now prevents them from getting what they want. Nor do they realize that the scarcity argument of Red Lion has never applied to either networks or cable operators since they don’t use spectrum.
Still, how could anything called “The Fairness Doctrine” be anything but good? Simple, when it’s reimagined in the image of Joseph Stalin. Let the banshees wail.Published in