Ed Driscoll

Eric Cartman Meets The Fairness Doctrine

In his latest Wall Street JournalWonder Land” column, Daniel Henninger combines a look at Brian Anderson’s South Park Conservatives and a look back at how the Fairness Doctrine and its repeal shaped the last 50 years of politics:

Ronald Reagan may not make it to Mount Rushmore for winning the Cold War. But he secured his place in the conservative pantheon for tearing down another wall: the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was a federal regulation, dating to 1949, which mandated “contrasting viewpoints” from broadcasters. In reality, the Fairness Doctrine ensured that incumbents got “free” TV coverage across their terms while challengers got crumbs. The Fairness Doctrine was also an early nuclear option: If a local broadcaster’s news operation made the local congressman or his party look bad, Washington could threaten to blow up his broadcast license.

Ronald Reagan tore down this wall in 1987 (maybe as spring training for Berlin) and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination.

It wasn’t obvious that conservatives soon would dominate talk radio. Radio programming has always been a soulless decision based on ratings. If programmers thought they could win the drive-time slots with Don Imus reading “Das Kapital,” that would be on the air and advertisers would support it. But it’s not.

What worked after speech became free in the spectrum ozone was hyper-articulate conservative hosts opening their microphones to millions of hyper-angry conservative voters–not least in such liberal bastions as New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich, his Contract With America and the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952–the years in which the Fairness Doctrine largely kept politics off the air. This didn’t happen because the Gingrich candidates were getting their message out in the Los Angeles Times or Boston Globe.

The conservative media ascendancy chronicled by Brian Anderson has driven many liberals nuts. The liberal media-advocacy group FAIR wants a new Fairness Doctrine to repair “broadcast abuse.” Just months ago, FAIR cited “the immense volume of unanswered conservative opinion heard on the airwaves.”

What goes around comes around, I suppose. Conservatives would say they’re now using radio, TV and the Web–all of it free from political control–to give as good as they got from the 1960s onward. For years, they claim, liberal managers in broadcasting, journalism, publishing and academia marginalized them. Were conservatives imagining that?

Maybe not. Mr. Anderson cites left-wing philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who taught at Columbia, Harvard and Brandeis) urging liberals back then to practice active “intolerance against movements from the Right” in the name of “liberating tolerance.” Thus, for example, liberal academics would vote to deny tenure for conservative colleagues–and still do–believing that this is a morally mandated act.

As Henninger writes, “Liberals now marvel at the energy and output of the conservative ‘movement’–the talk shows, the think tanks, the blogosphere. No need to wonder; they compressed the rocket fuel for the inevitable explosion”.