The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wants to make the media ‘fair.’ He’s not the first GOP president to try it.

Conservatives love rules about political balance — when they’re in charge.

President Trump thinks Google is unfair to him. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump spent this past week railing about the “Fake News Media” and “RIGGED” Google searches. Beginning with two early-morning tweets Tuesday, including a pledge to end what he claimed was the suppression of conservative voices, Trump lambasted news coverage of his administration and what he said was unfair treatment of his allies on the Internet. “I think what Google and what others are doing — if you look at what’s going on at Twitter, if you look at what’s going on in Facebook, they better be careful, because you can’t do that to people,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the administration is “taking a look” at whether Google searches should be regulated to address the president’s worries.

Trump has taken to the idea of forcing political balance, which he seems to view as simply “more positive coverage of Trump,” on mainstream news sources and Internet platforms. The federal government once had rules requiring just that: the Federal Communications Commission’s “fairness doctrine.” And if Trump does push for new regulations, history suggests that the right will rally around him. Conservatives have long pushed for mandating political balance in the media — when they can use that mandate to their advantage.

The fairness doctrine was established in 1949 in an attempt to ensure that broadcasters, which were granted licenses to use public airwaves, would not engage in propaganda — a genuine fear just four years after World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War. Broadcasters were required to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues, even if they had to give away airtime to do so. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives opposed the rule , believing that, because right-wing ideas like abolishing Social Security were considered inherently controversial, the fairness doctrine had a “chilling effect,” causing stations to black out conservative ideas altogether. They had reason to worry: The Kennedy administration had demonstrated a willingness to use the FCC to stop right-wing broadcasting (as made clear in a memo written by labor leaders Walter and Victor Reuther instructing the administration on how to use government agencies to thwart conservatives.

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Right-wing anger over “biased” election coverage is nothing new — conservatives were furious over coverage of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, as conservatism became an increasingly powerful force in American politics, a number of prominent conservatives came out in favor of the fairness doctrine they had long opposed. What had changed? The 1968 election, which put Richard Nixon, a friend to right-leaning media, in the White House. With their hands suddenly on the levers of federal power, the right began to see the doctrine as a way of bringing more conservative voices and ideas into national broadcasts.

The leader of this new push was Reed Irvine , an economist with the Federal Reserve. He founded Accuracy in Media in 1969 as a watchdog organization that would police mainstream media outlets and work to convince them that they were unfairly excluding conservative points of view. AIM presented itself as neutral — concerned with accuracy, not conservatism — but it exclusively sought out evidence that the news media was biased against the right, filing complaints with the FCC against programs that Irvine felt were “one-sided.”

Filing such complaints was a new tactic for conservatives. The change reflected an understanding that the FCC could be an ideological institution that conservatives could use effectively under Nixon. The Nixon administration agreed, seeing the fairness doctrine as a powerful tool for managing the press. The administration used the FCC to press cases against negative reporting, as it did during its battle with CBS over the 1971 documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon.” Nixon was deeply interested in pressuring television news networks, which he felt unfairly covered first his campaign and then his presidency. (He even put White House aide Charles Colson in charge of promoting Edith Efron’s book “The News Twisters,” which argued, using not-very-rigorous methods, that the networks were biased against Nixon in 1968.)

The administration saw AIM as a powerful tool, too. When Nixon officials put together a plan to scale back public broadcasting, Colson worked with AIM to file fairness doctrine complaints about PBS programs, as he explained in a memo outlining his efforts against the network. A partnership with AIM was perfect because it could serve, as another Nixon aide put it, as “a mechanism under which private non-governmental pressures can be brought to bear on the three networks.”

National Review publisher Bill Rusher also backed the fairness doctrine, as did conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. But the FCC ceased enforcing it in 1987, during the Reagan administration, as Chairman Mark Fowler saw deregulating the communications industry as his primary obligation at the agency. Conservative Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott tried repeatedly to reinstate the doctrine through the bipartisan Fairness in Broadcasting Act. They abandoned it in 1993, the last serious attempt to revive the doctrine.

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By the time Reagan’s FCC gave up on the rules, in the late 1980s, with a Republican president in charge, there was no influential conservative broadcasting to silence, no reason to see the fairness doctrine as an existential threat to a major source of conservative political energy. Only in 1993, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House and Rush Limbaugh, who went national in 1988, taking over the airwaves, did conservatives return to an earlier view of the doctrine as a tool of liberal censorship. Limbaugh dubbed the 1993 version of the fairness doctrine legislation the “Hush Rush” bill, and it attracted no Republican co-sponsors, a clear sign of the changing political atmosphere.

Since then, the fairness doctrine has become a right-wing boogeyman, trotted out during election years as evidence of the left’s willingness to use government agencies to bully the right and shut down free speech, and of the right’s commitment to deregulation. Despite that line of attack, it was the Obama administration that in 2011 officially scrapped the rule, which technically remained on the books, though unenforced. These days, most experts agree that, if the doctrine ever made sense, it no longer works for a media world that has expanded beyond the public airwaves. Cable news, satellite radio, podcasts and the Internet have so altered the media landscape that the regulation as written would have little practical effect.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to regulate news platforms, which is why we should pay attention to the period when conservatives embraced the regulation of news. Trump’s media complaints — and his apparent desire to wield government power to address them — hark back to this era when Republicans longed to use the government to crack down on the allegedly liberal media. And it’s easy to imagine broad support for such regulation reemerging on the right. All the same hallmarks are there: an administration furious over media coverage, a conservative media complex eager to create and spread pseudoscientific evidence of media bias, and a movement willing to ignore its deregulatory commitments whenever government power flows in its favor.

This story has been updated.

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