Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
When Rush Limbaugh died of lung cancer on February 17, 2021, all I could think of was Ronald Reagan’s worst decision.
There are many contenders for that crown: his neglect as the AIDS crisis became an epidemic has to be a top pick. But another must go to his deregulation of the airwaves. In 1987, Reagan vetoed a bill that would have made the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine a law, in essence nullifying it. Subsequently, any future FCC panel could repeal it—and on August 5 of that year, it did.
That series of events created the foundation for today’s ideologically polarized media—and political—environment.
The Fairness Doctrine stemmed from a 1949 policy meant to cover the radio industry. As a condition for a federal license, station owners were required to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.”
In practical terms, this meant two things. Stations had to “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance.” Second, stations were required to “affirmatively endeavor to make… facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues.” This clause was eventually shortened to the phrase “fair and balanced,” later adopted as a misleading branding device by Fox News.
The bill passed a Democratic House by a 302-102 vote, and the Senate approved it 59-31. But a Republican president not only guaranteed a life for conservatism well beyond his own with his veto, but linked conservatism to the survival of free speech. “This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Reagan declared in his veto message. The bill “simply cannot be reconciled with the freedom of speech and the press secured by the Constitution.”
And it also gave us conservative talk radio. In 1988, a Sacramento broadcaster popular for his conservative views came to WABC New York and launched The Rush Limbaugh Show, just weeks before the Republican convention.
As Limbaugh became a nationally known name, efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine in the Clinton administration were vigorously opposed by conservatives as censorship. Adam Their, writing for the Heritage Foundation, complained that “it is hard to understand why the federal government must police the airwaves to ensure that differing views are heard. The result of a reinstituted fairness doctrine,” Their noted, “would not be fair at all. In practice, much controversial speech heard today would be stifled as the threat of random investigations and warnings discouraged broadcasters from airing what FCC bureaucrats might refer to as ‘unbalanced’ views.”
It was a good talking point, but it wasn’t true. The Fairness Doctrine applied only to broadcast licensees: even if the bill had become law, the fastest growing news sector, cable, would have been unaffected. Fox News would have been founded in 1995 anyway. But new media sometimes distracts from the continuing importance of old media. Reagan’s veto opened the nation to the idea of deregulated airwaves, which guaranteed that conventional radio in a nation of people who commuted to work in cars, would carry conservative views, lies and distortions, with listeners never hearing any debate. In 1960, there were only two all-talk radio stations in America; by 1995, eight years after Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine, there were 1,130.
And 600 of them—over half—eventually carried Limbaugh.
Rush Limbaugh’s passing has raised the question of what will become of talk radio, particularly in an age when nearly anyone can create a platform on the internet. But the larger question is what it would mean for “fair and balanced” to be restored as an ideal for broadcasting, rather than a punchline or a marketing device. Today, many conservative broadcasters seem to believe that being honest about their politics is the same as being fair in their coverage. As Fox anchor Neil Cavuto challenged his critics, “You say I wear my biases on my sleeve. Well, better that than pretend you have none [.]”
But even some conservatives now think that Reagan’s decision to deregulate the airwaves may have been a mistake, “In 1987 the doctrine was abolished, a significant Reagan-era reform. But I don’t know,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in her obituary for Limbaugh. “Has anything in our political culture gotten better since it was removed? Aren’t things more polarized, more bitter, less stable? I’m not sure it was good for America.”
No, it wasn’t. But it was good for El Rushbo—and for the conservative movement.
Robert Slayton is a professor of history at Chapman University.