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Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine: I'd Rather Have Debate Than Ranting-and-Raving Journalism

02/13/2014 11:43 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

When it comes to influencing public opinion, broadcasting has been the single most powerful force in American society since the turn of the 20th century, but especially since 1987.

Why 1987?

Because that's the year American society lost accountability for one-sided opinions spread over the airwaves. More specifically, August 1987 is when American broadcasting lost The Fairness Doctrine, an FCC regulation that required owners of broadcast licenses to present both sides of controversial issues considered to be in the public interest.

Failure to comply risked a challenge to the owner's license.

The abolition of The Fairness Doctrine had many opponents but they lost to the Reagan Revolution anti-regulatory extremists. Reagan's new FCC chair, Mark S. Fowler, sneered at the principle that broadcasters bore special responsibilities to ensure democratic discourse. It was all nonsense, said Fowler. "The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants."

The defectors were particularly worried about the passive indifference of the American public who never seemed to notice that they'd lost control of a public asset: the airwaves. Mr. and Mrs. Jones didn't pay attention when "boring but important" issues disappeared from discussion.

In California where I worked, at KTVU-TV (Oakland-San Francisco), my job in the Community Affairs Department was to ascertain community leaders about our most pressing issues and then develop programming to explain them in a responsible manner. Ascertainments began in Oakland, spread to the greater Bay Area and then to the state as a whole. Some of us went to Washington DC once a year to meet with our elected officials and consequently, many ideas for our programming topics came from Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee's predecessor, Ron Dellums. Many of the issues needed clarification because they ended up as California ballot propositions.

One organization that was worried about the abolition of The Fairness Doctrine was The League of Women Voters. This nonpartisan organization played a big role at KTVU and persuaded the station to produce programs about, yes, "boring but important" (BBI) issues. I was the TV journalist who worked most with The League, wrestling with facts and trying our best to be fair and balanced in 30 minute documentaries that can best be described as information intensive. Long formatted packages were strictly off limits to the News Department. "We're afraid the viewers might yawn," the general manager told me, "and then switch to another channel."

Between 1981 and 1987, the Community Affairs Dept. broadcast five hours of programming a week with the documentaries and studio interview programs. We covered just about every controversial topic there was from nuclear power, to gay rights to the death penalty. The emphasis I remember best focused on energy and the environment through the core concepts of The High Cost of High Tech, The Politics of Solar Energy, Burn It, Bury It or Use It (about solid waste management), Information is the Best Defense (about toxic chemicals in the home) and California Water Politics.

BBI programs, all of them. To KTVU's credit, the docs were broadcast at a decent hour on weekends -- not in primetime -- but not in the middle of the night either.

All this stopped after August 1987.

Meanwhile -- seizing the moment -- a highly charismatic radio personality in Sacramento started sharing his opinions. He was clearly "conservative" when he started talking -- not to people but at them -- and without the threat of a FCC license challenge, nobody could ask KFBK to present the other side of his rants. This was Rush Limbaugh and he established his brand in northern California until 1988 when he moved to NYC to launch his national program. The rest is history with imitators such as Sean Hannity, Michael Reagan and Bill O'Reilly.

Limbaugh likes to say that The Fairness Doctrine was all that stood between conservative talk show hosts and the popularity they would attain after the doctrine's repeal. He was right. In 1992, Ronald Reagan wrote him a thank you note "for promoting Republican and conservative principles."

Reagan and his appointed commissioners had argued that The Fairness Doctrine violated broadcasters' First Amendment free speech rights by giving government a measure of editorial control over stations. In addition, they claimed in phenomenally twisted arguments that it discouraged debate.

They were wrong on both points. The Fairness Doctrine encouraged diversity of opinion and with that, well argued debate.

Those days are gone and instead of debate we now have "rant and rave" journalism. On one side is Fox News and on the other is MSNBC.

People don't just seek information when they tune in but also validation of their personal prejudices. That includes me. I know that Rachel Maddow and almost any program on NPR will make me feel good while just 10 minutes of Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly on Fox News will give me a ferocious headache.

Yes, Rachel Maddow rants and raves but I love what she says because I believe she digs deep and tells the truth. Her investigation of Governor Chris Christie and the Fort Lee traffic scandal was first-rate journalism. I like the fact that Rachel is smart and well educated (Stanford and Oxford) and I trust her and the journalists at NPR to be progressive.

A progressive agenda is what moves society forward. Had they prevailed, historical protectors of the status quo would have prevented the abolition of child labor, the franchise of women, the end to slavery and universal free public education.

A progressive mentality -- linked to the Enlightenment -- believes that changes improve the human condition.

Last week Rush Limbaugh attacked an entire female news team on CBS This Morning: Gayle King, Nora O'Donnell and 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl. He called them "stupid," "ignorant," and "wrong." There is irony here, because two of the same adjectives can be applied to him any day of the week.

Limbaugh is woefully ignorant and wrong about many things but he is not stupid. His is a sadly wasted intelligence. A college dropout after just two semesters at Southeast Missouri State, Limbaugh has never subjected himself to the discipline of acquiring an education. He's never committed himself to reading complex ideas, writing term papers, sitting mid-term and final examinations or arguing with people smarter than he is. In brief, he's never been held accountable for his ideas, except from his enemies whom he glibly dismisses as partisan.

In the final analysis, Limbaugh and Maddow are symbolic of a seriously divided nation. Veteran TV journalist and NPR's Says You, Paula Lyons speculates that it's because we don't listen to the same newscasts. Lyons says she's worried about her country to which I say: "me too!" Lyons quotes Michael Kranish who reminds us that "an explosion in the availability of information has coincided with historic levels of political polarization, the starkest divide since the early 1900s."

Would bringing back The Fairness Doctrine help? Maybe. Whatever. It's not likely to happen any time soon. No matter what you hear these days.