Saturday, April 30, 2022

Why I Miss the Fairness Doctrine, and Maybe You Do Too?

I grew up with AM radio, back when it still played music. Every city had at least one great top-40 station, and many of those stations had very entertaining personality deejays. The on-air talent in the 1950s and 1960s focused on playing the hits, but some of the announcers were also very amusing, and they knew how to make their listeners feel as if they were part of a community of fans. That was still true as music gradually shifted over to FM in the 1970s: when Rush sang in "The Spirit of Radio" about beginning the day with a friendly voice, that is exactly what radio meant to its loyal listeners.  In fact, if you were having a bad day, listening to your favorite station definitely would change your mood for the better.

Back then, the FCC mandated that radio broadcast a certain amount of news, and a certain amount of public service programming (the newscasts tended to be on the hour; the public service programming was usually buried early on Sunday mornings). Some stations also had talk shows, but they were very different from the ones we hear today: because of the Fairness Doctrine, these shows had to present both sides of the issues. In addition, insults and name-calling were generally not allowed-- in the mid-to-late 1960s, as society grew more polarized during the Vietnam era, a few talk hosts became more confrontational, but they were not the norm. Most talk show hosts tried to be interesting and informative. And although some had their pet causes, they tried not to sound angry or rude when discussing them. 

But gradually, deregulation allowed various rules to go away. Among them was the Fairness Doctrine, which ended in 1987, paving the way for one-sided talk programs that no longer needed to present any other points of view. Among the first to see the possibilities were conservative Republicans, who began putting partisan talk shows on the air. More than three decades later, over 95% of talk radio remains dominated by conservative perspectives, to the exclusion of everything else. And for those of us who had become accustomed to courtesy and informative debate, many of these programs offered neither: they featured name-calling, insults, and mockery of anyone on "the other side." 

What brought all this to mind was a three-part article in the New York Times about Fox News' commentator Tucker Carlson and the impact his cable TV show has had on the Republican Party, as well as on the American public. I know some of you never read the Times, and you may think it's a biased hit job. Not so. It's actually a very important piece about how allowing one-sided, confrontational talk shows to proliferate on radio and TV has turned our politics into professional wrestling, with partisans on each side seeking opportunities to verbally attack their opponents, and to score as many points as possible, even if that means fighting dirty.  Winning is everything, even if it means making false accusations, exaggerating, distorting, and demonizing "the other side." Tucker is a master at this style. He knows what his audience wants, and he delivers it, night after night.

But should a talk show host be the dominant force in our politics? Should a talk show host have more power than the president or members of congress? I know many folks who love his show and believe every word of it, even when it's pointed out to them that much of what he says is demonstrably false (and brutally one-sided). The problem is that talk show hosts care first and foremost about ratings. They don't care as much about what their rhetoric, or their framing of events, is doing to the country. Spreading hatred of "the other side" while praising "our side" is great for ratings. Fearmongering about immigrants, or liberals, or Black people, or Jews has always been good for building an audience. But it isn't so good for building friendships across party lines or promoting a sense that we're all in this together.

In other words, as the Times article points out, what's good for Tucker's ratings may not be so good for America. If the Fairness Doctrine were still around, we might still have the tools to limit anyone (on either side) who wants to use the airwaves for scary conspiracy theories or myths about the dangers that some group allegedly poses. But the end of the Fairness Doctrine has meant the gloves are off. The FCC won't do a thing: supposedly the 'market' will-- except hate has always been a big winner, and it always finds a large and eager audience.  

No, I don't want to see Tucker censored. And no, I am not blaming him for everything that's wrong in our politics. But having grown up with talk radio (and TV) that tried to be fair and accurate, I still can't get used to the airwaves being used for spreading anger and outrage (especially when the outrage is manufactured to build ratings and get certain politicians elected). I know there's no political will to bring the Fairness Doctrine back. I also know that a sizable number of people seem okay with talk shows no longer being courteous. And yet, I miss the shows that used to be informative rather than angry. And I especially miss the ones that began the day with a friendly voice...  I wonder if I'm the only one who feels that way.


  1. No, you're not alone. There is one ( and only one ) "conservative" talk host that I care to hear anymore. Not hate speech, not exclusively one sided, but a an admitted bias.
    Informative opinion more than much else.

  2. Well written Donna! My mother always had AM stations playing on the stereo. I used to play down next to the stereo cabinet and listen for favorite songs, and novelty songs when I was little. I'd color, draw, and use my spirograph for hours listening to AM. We didn't listen to FM until we moved from Ohio to Florida when I was 8. Still, my mother always had the AM stations.
    Radio changed. Too much commercials, one sided politics, obnoxious radio show hosts.
    As I've gotten older, I rarely if ever listen to radio, and play my cds, and put on YouTube music videos(especially Rush!) on Auto play. Thank you Donna for sharing this. Brought up good memories.