Guest Blogged by Sue Wilson
In the October issue of O magazine, Democratic consultant and commentator 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, a different one which is, apparently, far more controversial these days: Brazile says that if she "were in charge" her first priority would be to bring back the Fairness Doctrine." She says that that would 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 --- broadcast 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, Brazile's declaration of priorities 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? While no longer with the DNC, Brazile is still closely aligned with the Democratic power establishment after all.
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 airwaves to promote hate and propaganda against the U.S.
So they watched as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and radio station owners worked together to prevent propaganda from ever being broadcast over the public airwaves in these United States of America. This coalition of government and business put the "Fairness Doctrine" in place to ensure a healthy, reasoned discourse so critical to our democracy.
The thing is --- and a point important for those who believe much more information is now available on cable and the Internet --- 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 General Electric Theater. The so-called "Great Communicator" then went on to become President of the Screen Actors Guild.
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 by instructing his FCC to no longer enforce the doctrine. 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 legislation - 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 the airwaves --- specifically, the radio airwaves.
And control it they do, and not just by promoting unfair one-sided propaganda and messages of hate to the exclusion of all other ideas (and facts.) In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress passed (and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed) the Telecommunications Act allowing for a very few, mostly pro-GOP corporations, to purchase up all the nation's radio station bandwidth. According to a 2007 Free Press/Center for American Progress study [PDF], 90% of talk radio was "conservative"; that study was done prior the downfall of the left-leaning Air America Radio, so it's likely that today 95% of the country has no opportunity to hear a progressive or liberal or Democratic Party message on our own public airwaves.
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 [PDF] both in Broadcast Blues and in McClatchy's Sacramento Bee, only to draw the ire of Rush Limbaugh in response. (Wish I had his microphone to reply!) And it is not accidental. According to former right wing author turned critic of right wing misinformation, 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 are hushing progressive views in local meetings from AA to the PTA. The fictional oral history promoted by Talk Radio has turned into group think; now 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 this November?
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.
As Brad Friedman reported at The BRAD BLOG in the days immediately following Obama's inauguration, the following was posted as a goal of the new administration in the technology section of their brand new White House website:
But somehow, as Friedman followed up later at Alternet, after Right Wing noise makers like Sean Hannity screamed to his 14 million listeners that 'liberals were trying to destroy free speech', that paragraph quietly disappeared from the President's website.
Sources in Washington tell me that the Democratic leadership does not have the guts to stand up to talk radio, and they could be right. Donna Brazile has not responded to my question as to whether her comments in O signal that Democrats might wish to at least debate this issue.
One thing is certain: "We the People" are ready to do battle on this issue.
Democrats, are you?
Sue Wilson is a media activist, director of Public Interest Pictures' Broadcast Blues, and a 22 year veteran of broadcast journalism. Her numerous awards include Emmy, AP, RTNDA, and PRNDI for work at CBS, PBS, FOX, and NPR. She is the editor of the media criticism blog, Sue Wilson Reports.
Shameless plug: Let's hold the FCC accountable for reckless broadcasters who commit murder by radio. Vote now!