Paul Harvey Was 'Equal Time' in Fairness Doctrine Era

Paul Harvey's death Saturday did not garner major headlines or sustained attention. Matt Drudge had the related story link off his page within about 12 hours of when the news broke.

At one level, it's not at all surprising. The man was 90. Though he soldiered on, he was past his peak. His vocal cord problems in 2001 and his bout with pneumonia in 2008 had America mentally prepared for the inevitable.

But those who are unfamiliar with Paul Harvey need to learn about more than his tremendous career success. They need to understand and recognize his significance. Coming within hours of Rush Limbaugh's stemwinder of a speech at CPAC in Washington, we should not forget that in his heyday Harvey was in many ways what Limbaugh has often called himself: equal time.

To appreciate what Harvey pulled off, recall just how limited the media marketplace was in the 1950s, 1960s, and much of the 1970s. Two things shaped that media landscape: outlet scarcity and the so-called Fairness Doctrine. Each served journalists' generally left-leaning agenda well.

Being a purveyor of news required a printing press or a broadcast license. The New York Times and the Washington Post largely drove national and international news coverage for U.S. consumption. The Associated Press and its very weak sister United Press International dominated original news-gathering. Though many metro papers leaned conservative, they were largely at the mercy of the wire services, the Times, and the Post for non-local news. The big three networks' evening newscasts were for all practical purposes the only TV game in town.

Left-leaning media bias was occasionally obvious, as with Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, but it was usually subtle (much of that subtlety ended after Watergate). Establishment media's day-to-day bias was primarily in story and fact selection, not the outright opinion-as-news barrage we now endure almost daily.

The so-called Fairness Doctrine, which dates back to 1949, was an almost perfect companion to outlet scarcity. The broadcast networks could slant their stories and retain their immunity from the Doctrine's mandate that "broadcast networks devote time to contrasting views on issues of public importance" by saying, "hey, we're just objectively reporting the news" (uh-huh). The wires, the Times, and the Post were "of course" similarly untouchable. The conservative opinions of writers like Cal Thomas, Bill Buckley, and James Kilpatrick were relegated to local papers' op-ed pages.