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.