Monday, March 14, 2005

'I Gave Them a Sword'...

...Richard Nixon famously said to David Frost, in his first interview post-resignation. Turns out, one of his nemeses did the same:

Informational formats (news, talk, and public affairs), just 7 percent of all AM stations in 1987, jumped to 28 percent in 1995--dramatic statistical evidence of the [Fairness D]octrine's chilling effect.

Conservatives now worship talk radio, and liberals are scrambling to compete, if not reregulate.

In 1993, Democrats rallied to revive the Fairness Doctrine; Democratic congressman Bill Hefner of North Carolina distributed a pro-Fairness Doctrine flyer condemning "TV and Radio Talk Shows that often . . . make inflammatory and derogatory remarks about our public officials."

But grassroots outrage over the "Hush Rush [Limbaugh] Law" was given voice via talk radio, and the effort stalled. In 2000, however, the proposal resurfaced in the Democratic party platform.

While it's easy to ridicule the Fairness Doctrine today, it wasn't easy before 1987. Statistical evidence of a chilling effect was unavailable while the doctrine was in effect. And lack of such proof led FCC critics to dismiss the "self-serving anecdotes of the broadcaster," as a Carter-era FCC official put it. The commission needed support, a backer of some prominence to defend its bold initiative from legal and political challenge.

Dan Rather filled that role. The commission's official analysis featured the testimony of the

"Managing Editor and Anchor of CBS News" as Exhibit A:

When I was a young reporter, I worked briefly for wire services, small radio stations, and newspapers, and I finally settled into a job at a large radio station owned by the Houston Chronicle. Almost immediately on starting work in that station's newsroom, I became aware of a concern which I had previously barely known existed--the FCC. The journalists at The Chronicle did not worry about it; those at the radio station did. Not only the station manager but the newspeople as well were very much aware of this government presence looking over their shoulders. I can recall newsroom conversations about what the FCC implications of broadcasting a particular report would be. Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost.

Rather was the only celebrity journalist to speak out. The only other newsperson of any prominence quoted by the FCC in support of free speech was Bill Monroe of NBC's Meet the Press. With this scant support, the Reagan FCC ventured forth [and abolished the Doctrine].

Today, talk radio, cable TV networks, and Internet websites all benefit from the First Amendment's protection of electronic media. No single regulatory action advanced that constitutional shield further than the deregulation of broadcast content in August 1987.

And, that led to the diversity of broadcast opinion we have today, which made it impossible for CBS (and Rather) to completely, successfully stonewall the forged memoes story.

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