How do we decide what information is provided to the American public, to help us be successful citizens? We use the American Bandstand approach. Whichever “news” agency gets the most applause from (the equivalent) of shrieking, hormone driven teenagers, like on American Bandstand, gets to “inform” the American public. What a system!
This is the second post (see first here) in Page Seven addressing issues around free speech and the defunct (and quaint) Fairness Doctrine. This is also the second piece (see the first one here) to diagnose the gut wrenching schisms of our day and the role that bad information plays in fostering polarization.
In the previous article, I talked about the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and imagined what a day of radio might have sounded like way back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This exercise (perhaps also quaint) was prompted by Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, which hasn’t yet escalated to a full blown U.S-Russian conflict, but could still get there.
We are so inured to “news” agencies or bloggers talking like propagandists, that we’re hardly shocked anymore by what Limbaugh says about Obama and the Ukraine or what Malloy said about Bush and his foreign policy. I thought putting similar words in the mouths of legendary New York broadcasters over the course of a fictitious broadcast day, would reveal just how preposterous today’s language is about matters of great importance. In his vituperative, verbally violent language, Mike Malloy, though hardly known, is the Left’s counterpart to Rush Limbaugh. Not Sharpton, or Maddow, or even Schultz. But Malloy. He’s still around, but hard to find after the Air America network failed. It’s instructive that the practically unknown Malloy, is Limbaugh’s counterpart on the Left. Limbaugh is more entertaining.
The Fairness Doctrine was announced in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to try to ensure that broadcast licensees, who provided programming on a finite public airways spectrum, use some of the time to address issues of “public importance;” and to guarantee that most sides of important public issues were given roughly balanced attention. It’s a myth that “equal time” was required for all sides. That provision applied only to candidates for public office. As best I can tell, the FCC didn’t micromanage or bully the radio stations; but private, aggrieved parties often sued to get air time, which had a chilling effect on all substantive or controversial programming.
The Doctrine operated during an era when many critics, left and right, considered the public airways to be a “vast wasteland” of “inane, trivial” (those were some of the words commonly used) programming fare; and well before cable and the internet opened vast opportunities for all kinds of interests to (at least in theory) have their views aired.
The Doctrine was effectively repealed in 1987 and formally in 2011. The repeal was initiated by conservative Republicans in the Reagan era; but picked up bi-partisan support as the years passed. In 2011, President Obama said he would not support efforts by some Democrats in Congress to restore a form of the Doctrine.
Republicans have fiercely resisted even the slightest effort to re-regulate the airways, arguing that such initiatives were designed to silence conservative talk radio and restrain conservative speech. You bet they were. Democrats weren’t hiding that motive. Those efforts were, and still are – explicitly and unabashedly – aimed at curtailing right wing talk radio, because that viewpoint now dominates the airways. Liberals want to replace much of it with more of their own viewpoints. Centrists or “good government” folks want more “balanced” “serious,” “fact-based” news programming to replace opinion and “propaganda.”
Republicans think the public broadcast airways should receive exactly the same first amendment, free speech treatment as print news. They believe the market should determine what people can hear on the radio. They’re not bothered by the dominance of right wing talk; to them, its just a reflection of listener tastes. That’s probably true. The question is whether something can or ought to be done about it. And whether the solution would be worse than the problem.
Even though the public is still roughly split down the middle philosophically, programs promoting liberals/progressive views have been far less effective and profitable than Republicans and conservative talk radio. It’s not even close. The explanation given for the vast gap goes something like this: There are more conservatives than liberals who are intense and angry about issues, and the general state affairs in the country. Conservatives also feel their views were suppressed for many decades; and that the mainstream press has an inherent liberal bias. (See Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” and Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism”). Thus many more conservatives than liberals are motivated to tune into, and support, talk radio.
Liberals argue that the intensity or quantity of “buyers” should not determine what the public is able to hear across the broadcast spectrum. What should conservative consumers decide what all of us should hear? Conservatives counter that, with the advent of cable and internet, there is no need to police the public airways to achieve “balance” or for government to enforce any particular standard or brand of news and information. Yes, you can turn the dial, but in so many markets there are no alternatives anymore; or they’re weak signals are crowded out by the more powerful conservative stations.
It is useful here to mention that conservatives find it easy to justify the dominance of talk radio and the unabashed (I think shameless) political agenda of Fox News on grounds that the mainstream media (they believe) is, and always has been, biased toward liberal views. More generally, they believe there is a cultural bias, based on training and inbreeding, among professional journalists from all media. “intellectuals” become journalists, or get that way via training; and we all know how liberal intellectuals are!
There is some truth to this. The question is: Is mainstream, establishment news which, for the most part, at least strives for balance, more harmful than “news” which is openly and proudly biased; and barely strivers for balance? The Right believes mainstream news is more insidious than it’s in-your-face approach, because listeners didn’t know (for decades) they were being (subtly) “brainwashed.” I understand this argument, but reject the notion that the antidote which has (for now) killed real news in America is the right answer. And the antidote sparked reactions on the other side, so that most Americans receive the bulk of their information on important issues from propagandists.
I see the core issue here having more to do with the quality and integrity of information needed by the public and politicians in a democracy to make good decisions, rather than the principle of “free speech.” That already puts me more on the liberal side – i.e. being concerned about both process and outcomes, rather than just process. Here, “free speech” is the process; the quality and integrity of information is the outcome.
I don’t really know a way out. Perhaps Google or some precocious, teenage new media entrepreneur (later to be bought out by Google) will find a way to provide real information in a manner that also entertains. That’s been tried by old media — “USA Today” and some CNN reforms, for example.
Efforts to strengthen laws against concentration of media ownership may help, but how soon will these be killed by pulling them under the Citizens United doctrine? More public broadcasting could be helpful, but that won’t ensure listenership; and the political alignment in Washington won’t, any time soon, allow that. Conservatives here and abroad brand the BBC as left wing.
Recall Dick Clark’s American Bandstand? The show featured teenagers dancing to Top 40 music introduced by Clark. At least one popular musical act would appear in person to lip-sync one of their latest singles. At some point in each show, Clark would turn to his teenage, hormone driven, audience and ask them to rate a performer or a new record, with their applause and screams? I can’t recall whether Clark had a real decibel meter or numerical rating system. But, the choice was made based on a method similar to deciding which brand of toothpaste or deodorant to buy.
In the absence of the Fairness Doctrine, or anything reasonable to replace it, that’s how we now basically decide who gets to provide the information and news American citizens and politicians use to make profound and far reaching decisions. What people hear on the public airways today is more than ever determined by the American Bandstand approach; only here, the hormones are aided by who has the most money.