Rush Limbaugh is no doubt being remembered for many things, but I’m willing to bet that no one today is thinking of the Fairness Doctrine as they consider Limbaugh’s passing or his reign as talk-show host. It might be a good idea if they did, however, because the history of the Fairness Doctrine is insightful.
The Federal Communications Commission introduced this policy back in 1949. The policy’s purpose was twofold: one, to require holders of broadcast licenses (radio and TV) to devote airtime to discussing controversial issues; and two, to air contrasting views regarding those subjects.
Not to be confused with an equal-time requirement, the Fairness Doctrine gave broadcasters a lot of discretion in how conflicting views could be presented. Many believe the demise of this FCC rule is responsible for the polarization we see today between the two major political parties.
What happened to the Fairness Doctrine? After having been an FCC policy for more than 35 years—and having survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1969—the FCC abolished it in 1987. That same year, Congress attempted to pass legislation to codify the Fairness Doctrine, but President Reagan vetoed the bill.
In 1988, Rush Limbaugh, at the time a little-known voice at a Sacramento, Calif., radio station, signed a nationwide syndication contract, and so began the influential rise of a self-proclaimed entertainer known for such trademark utterances as “feminazi.”
We now know what Limbaugh’s brand of divisiveness has contributed to our collective conversation. If broadcasters across the country had aired a diversity of views, along with Limbaugh’s vicious monologue, citizens may have benefitted from what Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”
Hulse lives in Fargo.