Ronald Reagan’s Destruction of the American Media

9 mins read

When historians reflect upon the myriad ways that Ronald Reagan set the United States on the path of divisiveness that permeates today’s society, they frequently conclude his two most destructive actions were birthing the myth of the welfare queen and promoting the idea of trickle-down economics. Yet, while these actions fostered an almost feudal system of haves and have-nots, our current divisiveness was not the main culprit; instead, it was the destruction of the fairness doctrine.

The fairness doctrine dates to 1949, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grew concerned that the three major networks could promote a biased agenda. They announced a policy requiring that broadcast networks provide time to opposing views on issues of importance to the public. The FCC once called it the “single most important requirement of operation in the public interest.”

The Supreme Court upheld the doctrine, but it faced many legal challenges over the years. Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo separated print media from broadcast media for the purposes of the doctrine. The ruling stated that the number of newspapers already allowed for differing opinions to be shared with the public. Then in a 1987 case, two circuit court judges sided with the holder of the license to a Syracuse TV station, which had run editorials in favor of a nuclear power plant. Meredith Corp. v. FCC declared that Congress did not mandate the doctrine and the FCC did not have to enforce it.

These decisions set the stage for FCC chairman Mark Fowler to begin rolling back the doctrine during Reagan’s second term, even as some in the administration feared it would allow journalists to launch unfettered attacks on the president. Finally, on August 5, 1987, a bipartisan FCC under Chairman Dennis Patrick voted unanimously (4-0) to abolish the doctrine, a decision later upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The FCC reasoned that in overemphasizing differing opinions, the doctrine was restricting journalistic freedom and stifling discussion of controversial issues that may be important to the public. This ruling led to a groundbreaking court case in which a Florida appeals court established that under the First Amendment, media outlets have no responsibility to be truthful in their reporting.

In 1997, WTVT FOX News reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson began work on a story regarding Monsanto corporation and a controversial recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) that had been linked to multiple health issues in humans. Upon learning of the report, Monsanto turned to Fox News President Roger Ailes, looking to quash the “biased” account due to the “enormous damage that can be done” to the company.

WTVT did not run the report. The following year, after being fired by the station, Akre and Wilson filed a lawsuit. As part of that case, they claimed that WTVT was telling lies by omission. WTVT countered that it was looking only for fairness. While the jury ruled against the reporters, it did side with Akre that she had reported what she saw as a violation of the Communications Act of 1934 to the FCC. WTVT appealed the decision, arguing that the FCC policy against falsification was not a “law, rule, or regulation,” and won. This ruling essentially meant that there was no law or policy requiring truthfulness in broadcast journalism.

Despite these rulings, an August 2008 telephone poll from Rasmussen Reports showed that 47% of 1,000 likely voters supported a government requirement that broadcasters offer equal amounts of liberal and conservative commentary, while 39% opposed such a requirement. In the same poll, 57% opposed and 31% favored requiring internet websites and bloggers that offer political commentary to present opposing points of view. Not broached in this survey, however, was whether such commentary should be required to have a basis in truth.

Today’s media is no longer fair and balanced. Instead hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, The Young Turks, Mark Levin and others choose an us versus them mentality rather than, like longtime news anchor Walter Cronkite, reporting the news and allowing the people to decide.

Indeed, in 2004, Sinclair Broadcast Group ordered its affiliates to air a documentary critical of John Kerry in place of its normal programming, thus re-igniting the debate about the need for the fairness doctrine. Congress has since failed to make any substantial headway on the issue, despite numerous Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, introducing legislation to reformat and re-establish it. Such attempts have been met with opposition from conservatives who view it as an attempt not to return to a time of truth in broadcasting, but as a way to quash conservative broadcasters. 

Before the doctrine was repealed, political talk radio, albeit mostly conservative in nature, was prevalent. Even in more liberal cities, no voices were silenced because the doctrine prohibited broadcasting only one side of the argument. Such disparate groups as the NRA and ACLU were supporters, even using the doctrine to expand on debate and free speech.

And in today’s digital age, broadcast media continues to steer the discussion. They have a responsibility to inform, not inflame the public, especially on local issues.

Reinstating the fairness doctrine begs the question: Is regulating political media in the public interest? Does it equate to screaming fire in a crowded theater? Or would it be an infringement on our First Amendment rights? And in an age of digital media such as blogs, vlogs, and social media, is it even possible to reinstate it?

Many organizations looking into the fairness doctrine agree that caps to stop conglomerates from owning numerous outlets and stronger enforcement of standards is a better answer than reinstatement. As of 1984, 50 independent media companies owned the majority of media interests within the United States. By 2011, 90% of the was controlled by six media conglomerates — GE, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS — and their subsidiaries.  

Of note, back in 2004, Sinclair did reverse its course on the Kerry story — because its stock  dropped almost 20% after the announcement. Sinclair has a history of political bias; this is clear in recent elections as the company has ordered its affiliates to produce more pro-Trump commentary. 

In a well-known speech given in an episode of the original Star Trek series, Captain James T. Kirk explains to a society that their sacred text (the U.S. Constitution) is not written for chiefs only, but for everyone, to share in unity.

“We the People” was not written for the chiefs or kings, or the warriors or the rich or the powerful, but for ALL the people! Down the centuries, you have slurred the meaning of the words. They must apply to everyone, or they mean nothing!

Unless all sides can soon find a middle ground, partisanship and, indeed, zealotry in the media will not end, only further dividing Americans. 

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1 Comment

  1. Great article. When I broached the Fairness Doctine with my Congressman who has influence because he chairs a Subcommittee of Appropriations, he said it would no longer work. I approached an academic at Stanford and he said the same. I think the argument is that the Fairness Doctrine applied to broadcast not cable which is more prevalent today. Also, both sides differs from truth which is what is sorely lacking. Are we better positioned to regulate the social media platforms? Not sure of the best path but agree that change is necessary and critical.

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