Letters Threatening Governors; Talk Radio's War of The Worlds Moment

06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CNN beat the "letters threatening governors" story to a pulp this last week, and for nothing. Enabling. It was an oddball Texas radio talk show host, Sam Kennedy, playing his War of the Worlds, whether he knew it or not. He caused the mobilization of the FBI, state and municipal police forces and capitol security forces in fifty states. All for what is substantially a hoax. The FBI is rumored to have slapped his hand and warned him not to try that again. Good for him, everyone in the right wing newsinfotainment business wants to be Glenn Beck these days. Good for the FBI; throwing the guy in jail would have drawn way too much attention to the talk jock.

What Sam Kennedy said, what he did, wouldn't be anything worthy of more sanction than losing his job, which he won't, were it not for the fact that talk jocks and radio/TV conspiracy mongers nationwide have woven ongoing tales of scare recently, as a matter of journalistic prerogative. They are doing it, everyday, from Rush to Glen and Sarah and in a thousand microcosm media markets across the nation. Knowingly weaving fictions, without even the courtesy of Mercury Theater on the Air disclaimer.

CBS and Orson Wells were censured for scaring the hell out of a couple of million people. The recently formed FCC made some mild recommendations then, as to disclaimers that might help creative artistry avoid mass panics in the future. Broadcasters generally refrained from misleading the public for fun and profit thereafter.

Add to the Orson Wells fiasco a fresh and epic battle of propaganda in WWII and the early Cold War, and the FCC established the Fairness Doctrine in 1949. It asserted that the FCC had power to require fairness in mass media journalism. It required "adequate" coverage of news and reporting of opposing views, where there were opposing views, as in politics. The FCC undertook this policy in consideration of how, at the time, certain media markets were monopolized and alternate sources of news were not available. Dangerous enough to a single community, the summation of dozens or hundreds of communities being ill informed might affect the politics of the entire country. Broadcasters, fearing further government control, voluntarily complied.

Despite the First Amendment implications of the Fairness Doctrine, the Supreme Court upheld it against numerous complaints for thirty years. The court recognized that rather than reducing free speech, the Fairness Doctrine actually enhanced free speech by recommending, through the force of sanction, the airing of opposition views. Everybody got to talk, mostly, deep pockets or not.

The Reagan Administration abandoned the Fairness Doctrine under his absolute insistence. Seems Reagan didn't like a real argument. Much easier that way to weave an economic voodoo fantasy that would bring our nation to its knees. The opportunity to sell fantasy as fact was back.

Since then, the FCC has had little apparent influence on the content of broadcasts other than as the porn police. The FCC is more than willing to fine CBS for showing the world Janet Jackson's finely shaped "wardrobe malfunction" for a second or so. The U.S. Supreme Court even ruled affirmatively on the issue of the fine in 2009. Justice Potter Stewart asserted, in 1964, that you know pornography when you see it. How do you know a lie when you hear it? If we can all agree that pornography is dangerous, why do we think that deception is not? If the FCC can prohibit something as subjective as obscenity, how is it that it does not have the power to prohibit something equally subjective, willful deception?

The FCC, like the FDA, has some responsibility in assuring the public that what they consume is not poisonous. The Fairness Doctrine of 1949 did assure, at least, that if one side of the argument was that smoking was good for you, then the side that said it wasn't got some attention as well.

Opinion only enters the mix of public discourse when objective criteria on which to base a judgment is insufficient. Religion, ones faith in this or that deity, for instance, will always be a matter of opinion. There is no proving it one way or the other short of dying and going to an afterlife, from which you can't reliably report your findings. The empirical findings of Darwin, and several generations of science, lend empirical support more to Darwin than to Creationist Dogma, therefore the question is no longer considered a matter of opinion. But in a sense the argument to bring back the fairness doctrine is being made by the people who have used its absence to force on par teaching of Creationism with Evolution.

What is the truth? It's, more often than not, what's true for you. Yet you can't be expected to recognize a truth if you have never been exposed to it. A War of the Worlds is aired all day every day on Fox News, a proxy, for the sake of argument, of every radio and TV opinion mill in the country. Maybe it's time to tell them to quit scaring the hell out of the public before someone dies in a conspiracy plot based nightmare turned reality. Well, more die. Many already have.

Maybe the Martians will come and sort it all out for us.