When Reagan Republicans got control of the FCC they repealed the doctrine that guided broadcast and radio for 38 years. That opened the door for Limbaugh and his imitators — they could savage Democrats for days and hours on end, with no opportunity to reply.
These Republicans understood the political power of the medium. Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms began their political careers as broadcasters. But their influence was somewhat limited: The targets of their attacks sometimes got to bite back.
After 1987, “Fort Worthless Jim” had no recourse. And talk radio became a potent political weapon. In 1980, there were 75 stations in the country devoted to “news-talk.” Today, there are more than 1,300.
There are people, I know, who think this kind of ambush radio is genuine discussion of public issues. There also are people who think World Wrestling Entertainment is sports.
But what if the government was building pro-wrestling arenas and shutting down competing sports? And what if the government did the same thing to create a political advantage for one party?
That is what’s happened in AM radio. Since the 1980s, Republican administrations have been manipulating media law to protect an important part of their attack machine.
I know that in theory these could be liberal attack radio stations. But in the real world we live in, the multimillionaires who own chains of radio stations tend to be Republican. Very, very Republican, in fact.
Most of the more than 1,000 stations simply devote all their airtime to syndicated right-wing programs. And the political effect has been dramatic. Political scientist David C. Barker, author of “Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion and American Political Behavior,” has analyzed statistics that suggest the Republican “landslide” of 1994 stemmed largely from the increased polarization of one demographic — right-wing talk listeners.
The situation got worse in 1996 when the Republican Congress passed a landmark telecommunications act. One of its provisions lifted longstanding limits on multistation ownership by nationwide chains — right-wing talk’s biggest purveyors.
Before the law, no one company in the United States owned more than 40 stations. Today the largest — Clear Channel, the free-speech champions who banned John Lennon’s “Imagine” and more than 100 other songs after Sept. 11 — owns more than 1,200.
The 2000 election brought us another Republican administration and another Republican-dominated FCC. This time, the commission set its sights on the rules forbidding one company to dominate local television markets.
Despite unprecedented public outcry, the commission’s chairman, Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, pushed through the new rules. There was not even a pretense of open hearings.
The media consolidators may have overplayed their hand this time. A strange coalition of liberals and small-town conservatives convinced Congress to add a new measure to the omnibus spending bill President Bush signed a few days ago. The FCC had decided one company can own 45 percent of the nation’s TV market. The bill reduces that to 39 percent — still more than before.
Even GOP lawmakers such as Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas have wondered aloud whether corporate domination is good for the airwaves. They’ve hinted it may be time to look at the “fairness doctrine,” too. Conservative Republican publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard quickly savaged them as disloyal.
The big media and their political allies like to paint the question as a First Amendment issue. But the current “owners” of our AM dial are there only because government chose them to hold its licenses. Asking them to make a commitment to open discussion doesn’t seem like too much in exchange for what is essentially a license to print money.
And the FCC and its defenders aren’t First Amendment values poster children. Powell and his crew have mounted an unprecedented crusade against “indecent” programming, meaning sexually suggestive shows.
Just this month, for example, the commission fined Clear Channel a record $755,000 for playing a segment called “Bubba the Love Sponge” on some of its Florida outlets. I’m sure the “Sponge” number was distasteful — but this is censorship in aid of specific cultural values. If sex isn’t protected, it’s hard to see why Michael Savage should get a free pass.
The struggle to restore a semblance of fairness will be a hard one. And there is room for debate about what shape a new fairness doctrine should take.
Certainly the airwaves should have room for Rush Limbaugh. True, he is a windbag, a hypocrite and a liar. Rush also is a giant talent.
But would it be so terrible if every now and then his targets got to answer him on the air? Would radio really be destroyed if station owners had to respect the diverse voices of their local communities? As a hard-core First Amendment junkie, I don’t think opening the airwaves to more voices would do harm to freedom of speech.
Sure, there’s room on the air for WWE-style entertainment. Most of us enjoy it. But not all the time. Every once in a while, even AM radio ought to broadcast a match that isn’t fixed. S
© Garrett Epps
This essay is adapted from a longer version that appeared in The Oregonian.
Garrett Epps is the author of “The Shad Treatment” and “To An Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial.”
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