On Sunday, Nike founder Phil Knight had an obnoxious op/ed published in the Oregonian against two initiatives that modestly raised taxes on the rich and corporations to close a $700 billion budget hole here in Oregon. He threatened to leave Oregon, and take Nike with him, if they passed. Perhaps foolishly, I went to the Oregonian’s website, OregonLive.com. to read the comments about it, because it was so offensive and, I might add, poorly written. I continue to be haunted by the right-wing BS I encountered there, and the stunning success it represents in recruiting committed followers to some of the most reprehensible and elitist ideas ever conceived, all in the name of a twisted and yes, Hitlerian “populism.” Reagan may have been a doddering old fool in many ways, but getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine was one of his masterstrokes, and its legacy poisons our politics, destroys the very concept of e pluribus unum, and leaves us in the mess we find ourselves today. No wonder crypto-fascists like Sean Hannity et al are so afraid it could return. Because he and all of his ilk rely on a fact-free bubble of lies and smears for their political success, they recognize its demise as their very own Enabling Act, and its return would be their VE Day.
Right-wing radio and Fox News could not exist within the strictures of the Fairness Doctrine, and for good reason. Americans saw the power to inoculate people to the most heinous and repressive of governments made possible by the media manipulations of Goebbels and Reifenstahl, and that immediacy and manipulative power of Radio and film were key to their rise to power. Just like Hate Radio and FOX, the Nazis appealed to the darkest but most powerful and tribal elements of human nature… and found that lies, repeated often enough, were especially effective if they chose outsiders and minorities as scapegoats, and equated military conquest, violence, and racism with national pride and glory. The Nuremberg Trials revealed how well evil could become banal, and accepted, if it was relentlessly touted through the media. At the time, newspapers were still plentiful enough that with a few ownership restrictions might be left alone, but the limited spectrum of radio and television left America open to the fate of Germany in the 1930’s, and the Fairness Doctrine grew out of that understandable fear. Big Brother wasn’t just a fantasy in those days, and it was well understood that opposing viewpoints were critical in keeping Big Brother away from a screen or speaker near you.
Just as those hard lessons of that moment in history were lost when Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, and an economic crash quickly and inevitably followed, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led to the place we find ourselves in today. Fascism is back, broadcasting 24/7, with the same nativism, bloodlust, worship of authority and military conquest, wrapped up, just as predicted, “wrapped in the flag and carrying a Cross.”
Then as now, economic hardship has turned Americans hard and vengeful, and Hitler’s old targets: unions, academics, gays, minorities, liberals, and more enlightened countries are trotted out to be flogged for the disaster. Then as now, the wealthy, the well-connected, and the largest industries (not incidentally including the deregulated media) are happy to get on board. And then as now, the goal is not to attempt to solve problems through dialogue and compromise, but to eliminate, by whatever means necessary, any and all dissent from the programs chosen by the amoral and self-serving elite.
I was in Journalism school in the early 80’s when the Fairness Doctrine was being discussed, and ironically, my professor, Lauren Kessler, didn’t see its demise as a bad thing. In her liberal naivete, she mused that objectivity was unattainable anyway, so why not let journalists express their views in the open? Just a few years after Watergate and the Church Commission hearings, she evidently thought that liberal ideas would win in the marketplace of ideas, so why not let a thousand flowers bloom? I was inclined to agree, because I felt that Reagan’s destructive policies were being given undue credence because journalists had to present them alongside more sane proposals. Neither of us saw that a lot of wealthy conservatives were poised and at the ready to “invest” in a big way in the media, to bend it to their will once and for all. When the Fairness Doctrine finally fell, Rupert Murdoch and the people who would eventually build Clear Channel, Sinclair Broadcasting, and on and on, didn’t waste a moment, and the results will go down in the history books as an unmitigated triumph for the Right in selling, once again, its discredited ideas.
Thanks to the end of the Fairness Doctrine, racism is not only cool again, but has been redefined as an affliction only of uppity brown people. Torture is back, and better than ever. Rich people pay less taxes, and are even admired for their selfishness and greed. War is accepted as a permanent state of affairs, with all its crippling costs and questionable aims. Due process and fair trials are tossed aside as lightly as that Big Mac wrapper, and new, usually violent, pogroms against any dissenter, political or religious, are dreamed up and sold like soap each day. Working people’s wages and power have been systematically destroyed by the demonization of unions, and everything from schools to bridges are denounced as “socialist” intrusions on the “Free Market,” which is whatever the rich and powerful say it is.
None of this would have been conceivable just a few decades ago, and now, even a President of the nominally “liberal” party is powerless to reverse any of it. Rest in peace, “Fairness Doctrine.” You were our last chance, and we blew it.