Reversing the Reagan Revolution

For the past 20 years or so, liberals and conservatives alike have loved to complain about the content of the broadcast media, albeit for different reasons. Rarely have they recognized that their complaints have a common root cause, or that they could have a common solution—the Media Ownership Reform Act (MORA), introduced by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.

Since the Reagan era, conservatives (especially religious ones) have moaned about Howard Stern's leering, Marilyn Manson's faux Satanism, Janet Jackson's breast, et alia. Meanwhile, in the same two decades, liberals grew increasingly bewildered as the AM radio band was taken over by Far Right political talk shows—Rush Limbaugh and his countless imitators—and the Fox News cable channel brought talk radio culture to the world of 24/7 TV news.

Little noticed was the fact that these two media phenomena—rampant vulgarity and ideological media hegemony—shared a common source. Both were products of the sweeping media deregulation undertaken in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan's appointees to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

For 60 years, beginning with the Radio Act of 1927, the federal government asserted that the broadcast airwaves were a national commons, and a license to use them was a public trust. In the debate before the passing of the Radio Act, Luther Johnson, a Democratic member of Congress from Texas, noted presciently, "American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations, for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a republic."

Under the Radio Act, and the succeeding Communications Act of 1934, broadcasters were expected to serve the public interest, and they could lose their licenses if they didn't. As interpreted by the pre-Reagan FCC, serving the public interest meant observing community standards of decency, presenting educational programming for children, and airing coverage of public affairs that gave reasonable representation to all sides of controversial issues. This last point was embodied in something called "The Fairness Doctrine."

Eventually, in the case of Red Lion Broadcasting vs. FCC, broadcasters challenged the fairness doctrine as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. But in 1969 the Supreme Court upheld the doctrine, saying, "It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the government itself or a private licensee." The Reagan FCC cancelled the fairness doctrine in 1987, and sporadic congressional attempts to restore it have failed.

THE FIRST 60 years of electronic media history were no populist utopia. License denials for failure to serve the public interest were rare. And those that occurred sometimes had to be forced by the courts. But the threat of denial was real enough to make a difference in the way radio and TV stations did business. A citizen with a reasonable complaint really could get a minute or two of airtime to counter a one-sided broadcast. Most stations produced their own local public affairs programming. These were usually talk shows done on the cheap. But they were on broadcast network affiliates, while today that sort of fare is relegated to the media Siberia of cable community-access channels.

Essentially, the Media Ownership Reform Act would restore the democratic media regulatory regimen that prevailed until 1987. According to Rep. Hinchey's Web site, the bill would restore the fairness doctrine and roll back recent FCC decisions on consolidated media ownership. It would also require the FCC to report to Congress every three years on how its actions have promoted and protected "localism, competition, diversity of voices, diversity of ownership, children's programming, small and local broadcasters, and technological advancement." MORA would also require each broadcast licensee to publish a biannual report "on how the station is serving the public interest" and "hold at least two community public hearings per year to determine local needs and interests."

This would not, overnight, change the American media landscape. But it would give citizens a place to stand in attemptng to open up the broadcast debate of public issues and stem the flow of mindless, demeaning trash into their homes.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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