The GOP plan to cut the pittance allocated to public broadcasting has nothing to do with taming the deficit and everything to do with driving the last nail into the coffin of fair use of the nation’s air waves. Conservatives want not just the lion’s share of the listening audience. They want it all.
In the spring of 1992 my family and I drove from Americus, Georgia to Cheyenne. We had just completed training at the headquarters of Habitat for Humanity and had two weeks at home before leaving for our assignment in Nicaragua. En route we drove through Alabama and Mississippi, up through Louisiana and Arkansas, heading north across Oklahoma into Kansas and on to Colorado before arriving back home.
As we drove, we found it virtually impossible to dial a local radio station not broadcasting Rush Limbaugh commentary. We listened to him rant about all things progressive as we traveled through nine states. I thought if that is all rural folks could listen to day in and day out, minds would be numbed and politics changed.
It is much the same today. How often do you walk into a commercial establishment only to be confronted with FOX News? If you turn on the radio looking for news or talk, local stations trumpet Rush, O’Reilly or G. Gordon Liddy. Especially in rural Wyoming, it is only in public broadcasting you find any relief.
In the beginning, Congress was rightly worried about how valuable public resources like radio waves might be abused if the door was left open. During the debate on the Radio Act of 1927, Rep. Luther Johnson, a Texas congressman warned, “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations, for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a republic. And when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one person, or a single selfish group is permitted to dominate these broadcasting stations t, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”
The original act required broadcasters demonstrate their programming show “due regard for the opinions of others.” In 1959, Congress added the “Fairness Doctrine,” requiring broadcasters to afford reasonable opportunity to the discussion of conflicting opinions. The fairness doctrine actually cost me my job as a radio announcer when I decided to run for the Wyoming legislature in 1970. It deemed it unfair to other candidates that I would be spinning Beatle’s records during a political campaign. Fair enough.
In 1969, the Supreme Court upheld the doctrine. “It is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here.” But, the fairness doctrine was always a thorn in the side of big money folks who knew without it, they could dominate public debate with their own self-serving agenda. In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan appointed Mark Fowler to head the Federal Communications Commission. Ralph Nader, for good cause, called Fowler the most damaging appointment Regan ever made. Fowler rejected the notion broadcasters had any public duty and vowed to rid the law of the fairness doctrine. First his FCC simply stopped enforcing the law.
With a little help from friends like U.S. Court of Appeals Judges Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, also Reagan appointees, Fowler secured a 2-1 court ruling finding Congress never actually enacted the doctrine and therefore it could not be enforced. Before Reagan left, the FCC formally repealed the rule. By 1987, broadcasters were no longer required to show “due regard for the opinions of others.”
It was, you see, no coincidence that America got Rush Limbaugh. The very next year after the doctrine was repealed, Rush moved to New York and started his show. One thing leads to another and it wasn’t long before the air was cluttered with innumerable right wing entertainers, former Iran-Contra felons, resigned Alaskan governors, Watergate burglars, and worse. Add to that bleak history last year’s 5-4 Supreme Court opinion allowing corporations to use their war chests to “exercise free speech” and the opportunities for a free and honest discussion of important issues is near its end.
All we have left is public broadcasting…and now they are coming after it.