Limbaugh’s death comes at a time in which the country is grappling with the corrosive influence of false claims spread by outlets such as Fox News, Newsmax and One America News, leading some liberals to wonder if a revived Fairness Doctrine could help stymie the flow of misinformation. But the doctrine would be the wrong tool at the wrong time and, further, would not solve our recent problems of “both-sides-ism.”
The Fairness Doctrine was a relic of the network era. It required that broadcasters cover issues of public importance, and when they did so, to give both sides of the issues. The doctrine was well intentioned but flawed. First, are there just two points of view on issues, and should both always be aired?
When Edward R. Murrow broadcast coverage of the London blitz during World War II, he tried to be objective, as per CBS guidelines, but at the same time he did not give Hitler’s point of view on the situation. There was a limit to what fell into the “sphere of legitimate controversy,” as one communications scholar describes it, but it was not always clear where that limit was, a problem that continues today as the mainstream media grapples with covering white nationalists.
There was also a problem with enforcement. The Federal Communications Commission simply waited for offended parties to file complaints. If proof was provided — the time-consuming process of generating written transcripts of the program in question — the FCC might contact the station and direct them to provide another perspective. But, it was the threat of regulation more than regulation itself that made some radio stations avoid or minimize personal attacks and coverage of issues.
The doctrine did help to keep demagoguery at bay. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Father Charles Coughlin made tremendously popular antisemitic, pro-fascist broadcasts, offering much encouragement to the Silver Shirts, a group of pro-Nazi Americans. The church shut him down before he was charged with sedition, while the broadcast industry scrambled, having no solid mechanism in place to address the problem.
The memory of Coughlin’s impact loomed when the FCC put the Fairness Doctrine in place in 1949, and the policy did aid in silencing anti-communist right-wingers like Clarence Manion, H.L. Hunt, Dan Smoot, Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis who flooded the airwaves with one-sided diatribes against the Civil Rights movement; entitlement programs; the United Nations; the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations and even the fluoridation of water.
Many of the personalities who ran these shows were poor business executives, and a few were flat-out grifters. Some depended on small donations, others on the benevolence of wealthy patrons. They were fierce individualists who were incapable of collaboration. So the Fairness Doctrine was not their only source of trouble, but it was a key factor in their downfall. None would ever quite reach the star status that Coughlin had achieved, but they had millions of listeners on thousands of local radio stations across America.
Many on the right today understand the doctrine as a liberal conspiracy, even referring to attempts to revive it as a “Hush Rush” campaign. It’s true that the Kennedy administration instigated use of the doctrine against right-wing radio, whereas it was less often used as a tool against liberal speech. But the conspiratorial argument does not address the fact that left-wing broadcasting barely existed. The radio airwaves abounded with one-sided right wing content between the 1940s and 1970s, and thus a FCC regulation seeking balance ended up affecting speech on the right more than speech on the left. Notably, even President Richard Nixon was unfriendly to right-wing radio because he didn’t like how pundits like McIntire undercut his Vietnam policies.
By the 1970s, right-wing radio was mostly kaput, wiped out by not only Fairness Doctrine complaints but also by the FCC’s personal attack rules (which forced the provision of equal time to aggrieved parties) and general financial struggles.
At the same time, media diversification was on the horizon. The Carter and Reagan administrations were pushing for communications deregulation, cable was imminent and the scarcity rationale for the Fairness Doctrine stood on increasingly shaky ground.
Enter Rush Limbaugh. Unbound by the restrictions of the doctrine, Limbaugh saw his program as entertainment first, an approach that would have appalled Smoot and Manion. The cold war radio extremists hit their listeners with a hammer of information. If their messages about the dangers of school desegregation, Martin Luther King Jr. or international bankers (Jews) were seen as funny, they had failed.
Perhaps the best example was “The Dan Smoot Report.” In the 1960s Smoot produced a TV show, radio program and newsletter, all offering relentless lists of facts and figures. Every episode of his TV show was a single shot of himself seated at a desk, books behind him, a globe on the desk, a small houseplant on the side. He did not raise his voice, make wild gestures, display flashy charts or crack jokes. His gravitas would presumably bore viewers to the truth, as he understood it.
Limbaugh did the opposite. A 1991 “60 Minutes” profile of Limbaugh included one of his patented themed updates — in this case a condom update — cued up with “Up, Up and Away,” and attacking the distribution of prophylactics in schools. The profile also described Limbaugh using “Born Free” to open an animal rights update — a takedown of animal rights activists. He liked to open segments on openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) with the tune “My Boy Lollipop.” “I’m trying to attract the largest audience I can,” he told “60 Minutes.” “and hold it for as long as I can, so that I can charge advertisers confiscatory rates. This is a business.”
Limbaugh created a right-wing, national entertainment show that was indebted to the collapse of the Fairness Doctrine and that overlapped at points politically with earlier right-wing radio — in its racism, opposition to entitlement programs and support of deregulation — but he brought comedy into his act. This made right-wing politics fun, in theory, a move that was not just smart business but also, like the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, a response to the rise of a diversified media environment.
With the spread of cable came the emergence of niche channels and programming and the decline of the notion of a singular mass audience. Limbaugh brought this niche approach to political radio, which could now be crafted for listeners who found network news too neutral and the Sunday public affairs programs too dry.
And herein lies Limbaugh’s legacy. If he succeeded where Smoot and others failed, it was not just because of the demise of the Fairness Doctrine but also because of the rise of a “fun” right-wing media style that could be handily monetized. “The Dan Smoot Report” was funded by a millionaire dog food manufacturer. When he died, Smoot’s right-wing media business nose-dived and did not recover. Cornering the market in hyper-confident humor, Limbaugh found a way to make a fortune by merging right-wing politics and entertainment.
The story helps to explain how Limbaugh paved the path for a reality-television star to win the presidency. It also reminds us that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine alone did not create Limbaugh or the presidency of Donald Trump. Catering to market demands for shock and awe programming did, and that is why neither Limbaugh’s death nor a return to this network-era regulation will solve the problems of misinformation, partisanship and polarization today.