October 16, 2010
In the October issue of O magazine, the DCCC's Donna Brazile did the unthinkable: she used the "F" word - in Oprah Winfrey's publication, no less. Eyebrows are being raised across the political spectrum.
Okay, not that "F" word, but one that is far more controversial: Brazile says her top priority is to bring back the "Fairness Doctrine." She says she'd like to require "holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced fashion."
To the uninitiated, bringing Fairness to the public airwaves – radio and TV - is a no-brainer. But to Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and an army of 550,000 amassed to keep the nation's radio airwaves under "Conservative" control, this could be a call to arms. Is it possible that the Democratic establishment is finally ready for a fight to take control of their message?
Okay, time for a bit of history.
Our elders will remember a time when radio was America's number one source of news and information. And they remember being horrified at how Tokyo Rose and our enemies used the radio to promote hate and propaganda.
So they watched as the Federal Communications Commission and radio station owners worked together to prevent propaganda from ever being broadcast in these United States of America. This coaltion of government and business put the "Fairness Doctrine" in place to ensure a healthy, reasoned discourse so critical to our democracy.
The thing is, radio is still America's number one source of news and information. . More people listen to radio than watch television, read newspapers, or go online. Nearly fifty million people in the U.S. listen to talk radio.
But Fairness? Equal Time? Reasoned discourse? Those went out the window in 1987 with – drumroll, please – President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was, of course, a consummate media man. Not simply the star of B movies like "Bedtime for Bonzo," Reagan also hosted television's "GE Theater." The so-called "Great Communicator" then went on to become President of the Screen Actors Guild, profiting from programs while robbing actors of royalties.
More than any president before or since, Reagan understood the power of TV and radio. So it's no coincidence that President Ronald Reagan, by fiat, eliminated fairness in broadcasting. He knew what would happen if one side – his side – could control the message.
(It's interesting to note that after Reagan's action, both houses of Congress immediately passed bills – co-sponsored by Newt Gingrich - to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. But both Reagan and George Bush the First vetoed those bills. For the 2009 documentary film I made on this topic, "Broadcast Blues," Gingrich refused to answer questions about why he's changed his tune. No great surprise: put simply, Gingrich must understand that Republicans can win elections only if they can control Radio.)
And control it they do, and not just by promoting unfair one-sided propaganda and hate to the exclusion of all other ideas (and facts.) In 1996, Republicans passed an Act of Congress so a few pro-GOP corporations could own all the nation's radio stations to spread their lies. By 2007, according to a Free Press /Center for American Progress study, 90% of talk radio was conservative; that study was done before the downfall of Air America Radio, so it's likely that today 95% of the country has no opportunity to hear a progressive or Democratic message.
Think about that. Just five percent of the nation can hear the Democratic message on the most dominant form of media in the country. Small wonder that Democrats have been complaining they can't get their message out; they don’t have access to the microphones.
This paradigm is not about ratings. I've debunked that theory both in Broadcast Blues and McClatchy's Sacramento Bee, only to draw the ire of Rush Limbaugh. (Wish I had his microphone.) And it is not accidental. According to former right wing author turned conservative misinformation critic David Brock of Media Matters, the "Conservative Movement" is lying to the country intentionally.
It's created a culture shift, especially in midwestern and Blue Dog states. For example, in what was once Gephardt country, former Missouri Democrats turned Republican now hush progressive views in local meetings from AA to the PTA. The fictional oral history promoted by Talk Radio has turned into group think; group think has turned into Tea Parties.
So why is Brazile starting to talk about the Fairness Doctrine?
Perhaps because there are only three ways to restore true fairness and balance to the publicly owned radio airwaves.
First, local communities could challenge stations' licenses through the FCC. There is a movement going on to do just that, but it's not likely to work on issues of talk radio, at least not yet.
Congress could rewrite the 1996 Telecommunications Act so persons – corporate or real - can own only 40 stations nationwide, as they did in 1995, rather than 1200, as they can today. Any bets on that happening, especially if Republicans take control of Congress?
Or President Obama could take a cue from the Reagan administration and bring back elements of the Fairness Doctrine: Equal Time, no personal attacks, free airtime for political candidates, local community programming. Imagine what that would do for democracy. (Imagine the outcry from the Conservative Elite! That's what scaring Dems so.)
One thing is certain: We the People are ready to do battle on this issue.
Democrats, are you?
Shameless plug: I'm coordinating a new effort to empower communities to hold local radio and TV stations accountable by challenging their licenses. Please vote here to bring this session to Free Press' National Media Reform Conference!