Rush Limbaugh once boasted he had single-handedly “brought AM radio back from the dead.” It was simultaneously one of the most accurate and least offensive comments he ever made. How did he do it? First, his fortunes rose directly in response to the Reagan administration’s suspension of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Second, he made politics into entertainment in a new way. Both factors help us understand Limbaugh’s role in not only the right-wing radicalization of the Republican Party but also in the rise of right-wing news.
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.