Limbaugh Program Demonstrates Need for the Return of the Fairness Doctrine

By Corrigan, Don | St. Louis Journalism Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Limbaugh Program Demonstrates Need for the Return of the Fairness Doctrine


Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review


They call me the most dangerous man in America. Know why? Because I am," declares Rush Limbaugh.

St. Louis residents know all about Limbaugh's penchant for braggadocio, thanks to KMOX Radio's surrender of three hours a day to "El Rushbo."

Limbaugh bragged about his "dangerous man" status several years ago, after, extending his broadcast media presence from syndicated radio to an increasing number of television appearances.

Limbaugh came to the realization that he is a dangerous man without any great personal reflection. He came to the conclusion, characteristically, with "half my brain tied behind my back."

Unfortunately, KMOX Radio has not come to terms with the danger Limbaugh represents, and presumably KMOX management operates with all its gray matter intact and functioning. The self-declared "Voice of St. Louis" allows Limbaugh to demagogue, to spout nonsense and to spread poison with impunity three hours a day, five days per week.

KMOX provides no "truth detector" at the conclusion of Limbaugh's error-ridden harangues. The station makes no apologies for the many Limbaugh broadcasts which are often nothing more than 180 minutes of partisan, political advertising. KMOX Radio makes no attempt to provide its audience with any counterweight to the Limbaugh version of reality.

In fact, a case can be made--and that case will be argued here--that Limbaugh in St. Louis represents one of the strongest arguments ever for a return of the Fairness Doctrine to broadcasting.

The FCC's Fairness Doctrine was effectively jettisoned during the great age of deregulation ushered in by the Reagan Administration. President Ronald Reagan appointed a major campaign contributor, and owner of broadcast properties, to the head of the Federal Communications Commission. Reagan's appointee, Mark Fowler, immediately went to war against the Fairness Doctrine, which his fellow broadcasters viewed as something more than an annoyance.

Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, there have been plenty of expressions of "good riddance" by broadcast moguls, their lawyers, their lobbyists and their various apologists in academia. Nevertheless, the logic for the implementation of "fairness" on the airwaves has hardly been diminished. And, in examining the phenomenon of Limbaugh in St. Louis, a strong case can be made for the return of the Fairness Doctrine.

Fairness: What is it?

The idea of the Fairness Doctrine was not hatched from an ideological think tank or a university department of communications. Its genesis and refinement evolved from some real-life cases of abuse by broadcasters. The so-called "Red Lion" case is one such example.

The "Red Lion" case involved 1964 broadcasts of the Rev. Billy James Hargis as part of his "Christian Crusade." Hargis labeled book author Fred J. Cook as a tool and employee of the Communist conspiracy. When Cook demanded an opportunity to reply to the charges so as to restore his reputation, Pennsylvania radio station WGCB of Red Lion Broadcasting refused to honor Cook's request.

The FCC took exception to WGCB's refusal. The FCC declared that the station had a fairness obligation to Cook, and the commission's ruling was subsequently upheld by the courts. As similar cases came before the FCC, the rationale and philosophical justifications behind the Fairness Doctrine became increasingly clear:

* Broadcasters use the airwaves which are owned by the public. These airwaves are a limited resource, and, therefore, broadcast licensees have certain obligations to act in the public interest with their licensee privilege.

* When a broadcaster presents issues of great public importance, the licensee has an obligation to present opposing viewpoints on those issues in order to serve the public interest.

* Broadcasters not only have an obligation to give equitable treatment on controversial issues, but also to give a right of reply to those who have been subject to personal attack. …

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