The flutter of publicity over NPR’s firing of their sometimes-commentator and FOX News employee Juan Williams this week reminded me how far from journalism “broadcast journalism” has become. I toiled as a broadcast journalist for a number of years, and I can tell you that Williams wouldn’t even have been on the air at all under the rules of the game that I and my colleagues played under back in the day.
It’s all thanks to Ronald Reagan, who abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
Few people remember that, prior to that time, broadcast networks and stations had to provide equal time to air both sides of any issue. A commentator could give his own opinion, provided that opposing views were given the opportunity to rebut it. The movie Good Night and Good Luck dramatizes the Doctrine applied when CBS is required to give airtime to Senator Joseph McCarthy after they first aired a critical report of the man.
Reagan abolished “equal time” by executive order, in effect overturning consistent Supreme Court decisions that upheld the Doctrine from several First Amendment challenges. When he did, he made possible the likes of Rush Limbaugh and FOX News, who can use the public airwaves to push any agenda without needing to present opposing views. Or, for that matter, even stick to the truth. There is no longer any apparatus in place that restrains them.
Under the Fairness Doctrine, when Juan Williams went on his anti-Muslim rant the other night, he might have had to do so sitting across the table from a pro-Muslim representative. There probably would have been no Bill O’Reilly show to appear on anyway, or at least such a show would be required to look a lot different than it does today.
I have always thought it ironic that an actor who spent eight years portraying a President would be the one to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, and set in motion a chain of events that has seen broadcast journalism evolve into daily performances by actors pretending to be journalists.
Reagan banned The Fairness Doctrine by arguing it violated First Amendment Rights. It is his executive order that, in fact, has done exactly that.
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I saw the announcement where Sarah Palin has an eight-part “documentary” beginning soon on The Learning Channel. There’s an oxymoron: Sarah Palin on The Learning Channel.
Still, this is the latest example of the successful marketing campaign that took advantage of one favorable break (thank yous inserted here for John McCain) and shoved a once-obscure washed-up television wannabe into everybody’s face to turn her into a daily media event. We have Sarah the book, Sarah the fund raiser, Sarah the pulpit rattler, Sarah the political TV commentator. Tabloids and tabloid television promotes Sarah the Mamma Grizzly by selling Bristol the dancer and Bristol the little grizzly for the mindless who hunger for more Alaskan sizzle. Sarah’s even proven to be a star-maker: where would Tina Fey be without Sarah Palin?
Here’s the remarkable part: according to public opinion polls, Sarah the personality has a favorable rating of 22 per cent, only slightly above the Dick Cheney line. What’s more, her negative rating is at a whopping 72 per cent. (Makes one wonder how the other 6 per cent can’t seem to make up its mind, but Mamma Grizzly does have a large family.) The point being that we collectively can’t seem to get enough of someone the numbers suggest we by and large can’t stand.
In light of all of this, I think I finally “got” the phenomenon that is Sarah Palin. Think of her as Paris Hilton. She’s seen everywhere -television, personal appearances, magazine covers – yet we’re not really sure why.
One big difference, though. I think Paris Hilton has read Mark Twain, where Sarah Palin has not:
It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.
I have had this exact feeling many times. The feeling of arriving at one of those unique moments that helps shape and define a life.
The first time I said goodbye to my mom, and went into kindergarden class. My first time alone behind the wheel of a car. My first day on a college campus. My first date, first kiss, first time making love. First broken heart. First (and only, so far) time walking down the aisle. The birth of my first child.
My first career change. Then my first career change after the first career change. Running my first 5K. Completing my first marathon. The first time jumping out of an airplane. The first time scuba-diving, and my first encounter with a rare wolf seal.
And now, my first blog. Thanks for sharing the moment with me.