The story which prompted this article was buried. It deserves a lot more attention, but not just because it’s about a challenge by Newsmax Media to Fox News’ supremacy in conservative broadcasting. And not even because the challenge is coming from another source that’s conservative, albeit “center-right”, more moderate, as Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, characterizes himself. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-03-06/newsmaxs-chris-ruddy-preps-tv-network-to-rival-fox-news.
The story deserves more attention because of its reminders. It had an odd effect on me, exemplifying the shambles and sad state of affairs of current “news,” information, and public discourse in our democracy (or republic, won’t quibble over that). Combined with the Russian-Ukraine crisis, it prompted me to ask: “What would a broadcast day have sounded like in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, if we didn’t have the Fairness Doctrine back then? For those who may not recall, the Fairness Doctrine, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), coaxed broadcast licensees to provide programming that was fair, honest, and equitable. A quaint idea.
Devising an imagined script for 1962 without the Fairness Doctrine was enlightening. Even if you weren’t around in 1962, which is quite likely, you’ll get the point; or you”ll think, “Gee, too bad they really didn’t talk that way back then.”
Lets imagine what a day of programming might have been like on a New York City, 50 megawatt radio station in 1962, had it sounded anything like what we have today. The names of the broadcasters will be familiar to a few, but the scripts I provide are mostly fictional. The words I put in their mouths may sound preposterous, because, especially if you know those gentlemen, they are preposterous. That’s the whole point.
The broadcasters I’m using for this exercise would never have spoken this way, not because they’re liberals — in fact, Godfrey, Nebel, and definitely Bob Grant, were thought to be conservative politically and culturally. Only Grant openly revealed that at the time. They wouldn’t have talked this way, because we had a Fairness Doctrine. Also, because we weren’t nearly as polarized then. But lacking anything like a Fairness Doctrine has contributed mightily to polarization.
Am also going to take poetic license with time frames – not all of these broadcasters would have been there at the same time in 1962. Give me a break. Thank you.
So, we turn on the radio at 6:00 am in the morning in N.Y. in Fall 1962, just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was coming to our attention. It starts with Imus in the Morning. Imus, still amused, and probably aroused, by the clip of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy “happy birthday Mr. President” song to a blushing JFK, jokes about rumors of private meetings between “the Prez” and the Hollywood sex symbol. Imus, though libertine in his own life, is appalled (shedding crocodile tears) that the Prez doesn’t respect the dignity of his office. “Even Imus is appalled,” he says. “How do you like that Mr. Prez!!”
Later in the morning, Arthur Godfrey, in between Julius LaRossa ballads, laments on the inexperience and naivete of the young John Kennedy. How “dumb was it,” says Godfrey (an expert geo-politician) “for JFK to meet with Khrushchev in Vienna?” “And how humiliating for an American President to be dressed down by a Russian leader; we’ve never seen this before.” Well, maybe FDR at Yalta?” Godfrey moves on to a Jello commercial, and the daily quiz, where a case of the powdered version is awarded to the winner.
Now, we’re into mid afternoon, and Bob Grant. Grant was, arguably, the first radio talk show host to proudly proclaim his political and partisan affiliations. He really cuts loose. (He might have actually said this). With news of Russian ships, probably with more missiles on board, steaming toward Cuba, Grant reminds his listeners how all of this is Kennedy’s fault. “going back to his feckless handling of the Bay of Pigs affair.” Grant jokingly reiterates Godfrey’s taunts involving Marilyn and the Vienna Summit. Grant knows some history, so he reminds his audience that “the President’s father, Joe Sr., was booted out of his ambassadorship to the Court of St. James, because he was a Nazi appeaser; and the son is cut from the same cloth.” Oh yes, and what about the First Lady’s French ancestry and the way the French people embraced the couple on their trip to Paris the year before. “What do you expect,” Grant asks, , “from a President who hangs out with these kind people?”
Now we’re into late afternoon, early evening drive time radio, with sports guru extraordinaire, Bill Mazur. Bill was the first sports talk jock to truly master the details, history, and intricacies of every sport imaginable, including curling, and even the one where the guy shoots at targets with a bow and arrow, while drifting across the landscape on cross country skis.
In any event, even Mazur finds a little opening to slam the President. Talking about the upcoming Army-Navy game, Mazur says “well, we hope our President doesn’t show the same disrespect for the Army that he did last year, when he didn’t salute General Wheeler at half time.” Sigh! Sigh! “Ike would never have flubbed that one.”
Around 9:00 pm, Mazur hands the baton off to Long John Nebel, the founder of late-night radio, flying saucer, para normal, conspiracy theory conversation. Perfect for those stormy nights, under the covers, with thunder and lightening in the background. But before Long John takes over, he invites Jean Shepherd, the witty, engaging, story-telling, raconteur from Hammond, Indiana, to warm us up with a story from the heartland. Sheperd was the original Garrison Keillor.
After telling a wonderful tale about Thanksgiving dinner in Hammond in 1932, Shep can’t help himself. He says something about how “Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated anymore in the nation’s capitol with the same warmth, heartfelt thanks, and sincere appreciation for our freedom, prosperity, and way of life.” Well,” he says, with a well-timed sigh, “our President is not from the Heartland; he doesn’t get it.”
Back to Long John Nebel.
Long John hosted many guests with stories that “you won’t hear anywhere else,” from legitimate professors, not from elite universities, but legit nonetheless, to outright kooks and nut jobs.
On this night, he hosts a guy who says he served with John F. Kennedy on PT-109 in World War II. The guy has written a book, albeit “self published,” which describes the young Lieutenant Kennedy’s dithering and indecisiveness as his boat came under attack; how he sat there paralyzed, with his mates having to shake him into action. He, says, “well yeah, Kennedy did put himself in danger trying to save his shipmates, but none of this would have happened if Kennedy had been decisive in the first place. He doesn’t deserve his war medals. It’s shameful that we have a commander in chief who couldn’t even command a small boat.” Nebel commiserates with the author, emotes a sigh, and reminds listeners that the only way we can change this is to elect a Republican in 1964.
Think this sounds silly and absurd? It does. Unimaginable that a 50 megawatt N.Y. station could fill the airways this way, all day long, into the night, day after day? Welcome to America 2014. And a lot of us are proud that we made that happen with our foresighted repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.
I of course fully realize that many folks think the Fairness Doctrine was a tool for liberals to prevent conservative views from being aired. That is a criticism more than worth addressing. It was, sort of, the thesis of Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale.” So, I will continue this discussion in the next couple of days. In the mean time think about “what’s wrong with the picture” I painted for 1962, and with today’s picture. I realize a lot of folks will say: “YES!, that’s exactly what Godfrey, Grant and those radio guys should have been saying in 1962. We’d be better off today if they had.” More later.