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Clarence Page: Fairness Doctrine should stay dead

Clarence Page: Fairness Doctrine should stay dead

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Clarence Page

Speak not ill of the dead, I was taught in Sunday school. I respect that.

But if I couldn't eulogize Rush Limbaugh, who died last week, without such pinpoint descriptions as bloviating, racist, misogynist, neo-fascist gasbag, I think good ol' Rush would be disappointed in me.

After all, I would be helping to confirm the angry, humorless, elitist and vindictive image of liberals and moderate RINOs ("Republicans in name only") that he peddled with very lucrative success since the mid-1980s, preparing the way like a latter-day John the Baptist for the election of Donald Trump and, let us not forget, the Jan. 6 attack by anger-fueled Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol.

There. I'm glad I got that out of my system.

But you can find far more ferocious send-offs for Limbaugh on social media sites such as Twitter where the anti-Rush vitriol from the left is matched only by the crocodile tears comebacks from the right.

"We are now the United States of hatred," tweeted conservative showman Bill O'Reilly, indignantly grabbing a patch of high ground.

Well, at least we're united around something. Our current state of national division boiled up in another surprising meme that went viral after Limbaugh's death: Calls to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

What's the Fairness Doctrine? Well, kids, from 1949 to 1987, the Federal Communications Commission, which awards the licenses that allow broadcasters to use the public's airwaves, required television and radio stations to do two things: allow time for an opposing view when they aired a political position, and give an opportunity for anyone who has been personally attacked to rebut the charges on air.

Since violation of the Fairness Doctrine could be grounds to revoke the offender's broadcasting license, which way beats GameStop stock as a reliable road to riches, stations went out of their way to make "fair and balanced" more than just a slogan.

For my generation, the doctrine's impact was symbolized in the late 1970s by the popular "Point-Counterpoint" segments on CBS' "60 Minutes," which pitted liberal Shana Alexander against conservative James Kilpatrick. Their mini-debates became popular enough to be spoofed repeatedly on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" where Dan Aykroyd memorably butted heads with Jane Curtin.

But little did I know that the Curtin-Aykroyd level of discourse would turn up in real life after President Ronald Reagan's FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

Freed from government-mandated "fairness," Limbaugh debuted his national radio show a year later on AM radio, which was fading against the superior music sound quality of FM. He deserves credit for changing the media landscape by turning the previously dead three hours of early afternoon into an enormous cash cow that spawned dozens of right-wing imitators.

Interestingly, for reasons that are hotly debated, attempts by liberal-left-progressive talk shows have yet to catch on with similar ferocity. The typical response I hear from committed conservatives is something like, "You've already got the mainstream/lame-stream media."

But the right is not alone in criticizing the media, a preoccupation that appears to have replaced baseball as our national pastime.

That's not a good enough reason to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, though, as valuable as I hope most of us find the idea of hearing both sides of controversial issues.

The Fairness Doctrine is an idea whose time has come and gone. Born in the early post-World War II years when broadcast media consisted of relatively few AM radio stations, it would not offer the choices that its proponents seek in today's age of endless information sources on cable TV, satellite TV and the beloved internet, none of which use public airwaves.

Today's media information battle, in fact, is being fought by Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter. That's where Limbaugh's legacy led to the presidency of Donald Trump, one of his biggest fans and, one must say, imitators.

The internet giants face a much bigger and thornier debate over how to police the content of their users. If they don't figure it out soon, the government could move in with remedies of their own, fair or not.

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.



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