The Fairness Doctrine’ll Get You If You Don’t Watch Out by Robert N. Lee

I spend much of my online time catching up with insane things conservatives say, and this election year has been more insane in that regard than usual. American conservatism imploded in 2008, and nowhere is this clearer than in the heights of fantasy and illogic reached in the political conversation of rank-and-file Republicans. You expect some lying and lunacy in these matters, not restricted to any particular ideology or party. This week, for instance, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy, so old stories about clandestine government sponsorship of Jim Jones and People’s Temple are flying around. Many Americans of varying political stripes will believe any horror story – no matter how absurd - with the initials “CIA” attached to it. It happens.
 
What you don’t often see, even in presidential election years, is the grand scale panicked denial gripping US conservatives lately. You don’t usually see one party or another’s followers descending into a despairing willingness to believe and do anything and everything similar to their favored campaign. I have seen this everywhere, online and in real life as the McCain campaign crashed: conservatives making claims that negate themselves as they are saying them. I don’t know how many Republicans I’ve seen in the last month saying that George W. Bush wrecked everything he touched as President, he is also a socialist (no kidding) and he is simultaneously the second greatest US President (guess who’s number one). The desperation is palpable.
 
Which brings me to one of my favorite recent Republican scare stories, one combining fevered imagining about shit that just ain’t going to happen with instant self-rebuttal. There is nothing funnier than watching conservatives simultaneously condemn an imaginary monolithic "biased against us media" and piss and moan about one of their favorite fears, this year: “The Fairness Doctrine is Coming Back.” 


 
For people too young to be aware of "the news" before Reagan and friends fixed it for us by getting rid of caps on media ownership and shitcanning the Fairness Doctrine, it didn't used to be this way. Even in the nascency of CNN and the "24-hour news cycle," anything like a celebrity journalist was rare and this was a distinction reserved for, say, the guys who broke Watergate and emerging attention whores like Geraldo Rivera. TV news was a staple, but not a particularly exciting one, like white bread or potatoes. And every news program featured discussion of controversial issues with the expression of opposing viewpoints required by law. 


 
Americans' relationship to "the news" was entirely different back then, due largely to these standards. The news didn't consume us the same way, and this was really not about a lack of access and opportunity - that's increased wildly since, but you had a few cable and other choices if you wanted to sit around and take in news all day when you could be watching more amusing TV or seeing a movie or getting drunk, instead. Most of us did not. Satirical claims in Network to the aside, television news had not really morphed into an mass entertainment option, not yet. 


 
Now it has, and this is a long-done deal, and this is what makes late conservative paranoia about the reinstitution of the Fairness Doctrine an absurdity: there is so much money made in TV and radio news programming at this point, often precisely because it's biased, just like we are. There's a lot of personal joy to take in listening to people who don't like Palin or Obama like you don't echo your own mockery of either. It's compelling. It keeps people watching and builds massive fan bases.
 
Broadcast news never made this kind of crazy-ass money before, and nobody’s giving that up willingly. 

It’s not like broadcast news was bereft of partisans, prior to 1987. Talk radio existed, shows pushing lines between journalistic and other network content existed. It's just that Joe/Jane Partisan broadcaster couldn't deliver a constant stream of his or her own opinions with no dissent. Try and imagine this: Rush Limbaugh has to stop for five minutes at the end of his show because yesterday, he spent all day calling Barack Obama a "socialist.”
 
He has to provide a few minutes for somebody from the Obama campaign, or somebody who at least pretends to support Obama, to explain why that's idiotic and Obama is in no sense a socialist. You can understand why this would be a big pain in the ass for somebody like Limbaugh - his act would not have worked. (Until Bush II, actually, a last vestige of the Fairness Doctrine remained, in that outright attacks on persons on news programs had to be reported to those persons by the network, to at least give them some kind of chance to respond, even though by then the station was no longer required to invite them to rebut. W. got rid of that one for Limbaugh and Fox first thing after taking office. What a nightmare the nineties must have been for those assholes. "Dear Chelsea Clinton: I said you were ugly again today on my show. Ha ha ha, you suck, kid. Love, Rush.")


 
Which was the whole point of destroying media ownership caps, along with every other sensible corporate regulation lately, and getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine: allowing the wealthiest right-wingers in the US to say whatever the fuck they wanted, all day, every day, without the remote possibility of a counter-argument. Because that's what the "fair" in "Fair and Balanced" means, and this is a key philosophical distinction.
 
When American conservatives talk about fairness in media, they're talking entirely about the supply side of a business deal, and how unfair it is to not let people with all the money steer all the public discourse. When American liberals talk about fairness in media, they're talking entirely about the audience side of mass tech that necessarily limits discourse even as it promotes, and not allowing single viewpoints to dominate public conversation. 


 
Republicans don't hate the old American broadcast media model because it ever persecuted them or denied them a voice - they hate it because it thwarted their own desires to persecute and alienate. That's what "The Liberal Media" means, not media that displays a constant Democratic or progressive or left bias, but media that's liberal in principle and practice, in that it allows and encourages a multiplicity of voices. That’s what American conservatives hate and always hated and it shows in their choice of media, in these post-Fairness Doctrine years.
 
Fox News Channel and right-wing talk radio are exactly the imaginary corrupt and exclusionary liberal monoliths conservatives harped on for decades, except they’re opposite, ideologically. When Republicans these days talk about that sort of liberal media monolith as though it ever existed, they're telling you they're ill-informed. When they claim any such thing exists now, they’re telling you they’re liars. When they complain about Keith Olbermann, kick them right in the nuts.
 
They demanded this shit and made it happen. They birthed and embraced what they claimed as their own worst nightmare and have no one to complain to when they don’t like the long-term results. 

I can't say I hate what's happened to broadcast news since I was a kid. I find Olbermann’s shtick a little hammy, but he says some cool things on his totally biased news show. I like Rachel Maddow’s new show better, although I don’t watch it every night or every week, even. There is, as I said, a comfort in turning on the TV and watching a newscaster talk about politics in roughly the same manner I might.
 
I do miss one thing I didn't appreciate at the time, and often found dull, to be honest. The show would halt and the host or announcer would say "Last week, we ran a story about US involvement in Nicaragua. Here is Manuel Ortiz from the Boy, Do I Love the Contras Foundation to offer an oposing view." Everything else dropped away and for a minute or two, a single voice became the focus, a voice saying simply "I do not agree with the way you presented this issue, and here is why." Nobody could interrupt Manuel during his allotted time or call him stupid or a fascist or tell him to shut up. Nobody argued with him in absentia when he finished saying his piece, either.
 
It was almost religious, the respect paid this moment given to an unpretty, unfamous and otherwise unheard voice. It isn’t the moment I miss, so much as the reverence. 


 
I miss that a lot.
 
Robert N. Lee is a Pacific Northwest exile in Florida, and a designer and illustrator who occasionally writes stuff that gets published. He has two teenage children, a girlfriend and two cats and a pug named Henry, Beezus and Ramona. He also likes to say “fuck” a lot, and you can witness this fuckitude on a daily basis at http://vee-ecks.livejournal.com