There was a small but revealing moment on the final night of the editorial writers' convention here in Little Rock not long ago. Our distinguished guest speaker of the liberal persuasion was waxing nostalgic for the heady time when the old Fairness Doctrine ruled the airwaves and all was right with the world of broadcast opinion. For in those days impartial government bureaucrats enforced the rule that, for every opinion voiced on radio and television, equal time had to be allotted to its opposite, and all was right with the world.
It all sounds fair enough - like so many abstract doctrines - if you didn't have to live with it. To appreciate, and apprehend, how the "Fairness" Doctrine really operated, just listen to one of my heroes in this business - Nat Hentoff, a true liberal who's seen it all in his couple of lifetimes in Medialand:
"I was in radio under the reign of the Fairness Doctrine, at WNEX in Boston in the 1940s and early '50s," he remembers. And being Nat Hentoff, he naturally aired a few of his opinions from time to time. Uh oh. "Suddenly Fairness Doctrine letters started coming in from the FCC and our station's front office panicked. Lawyers had to be summoned, tapes of accused broadcasters had to be examined with extreme care; voluminous responses had to be prepared and sent. After a few of these FCC letters, our boss announced that there would be no more controversy of any sort on WMEX. We had been muzzled."
The Unfairness Doctrine had claimed another victim. Which was just the way the mainstream media wanted it. Why debate others' ideas when it was so much easier to stifle them with lawyer letters?
It was a deliberate strategy. To quote one of the Democratic Party's apparatchiks back then, Bill Ruder: "Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too costly to continue."
It worked. Broadcast opinion was soon largely reserved for the right people with the right opinions, that is, moderately leftish ones. Or what our guest speaker called "legitimate" news outlets - like the New York Times instead of all those loudmouths agitating over the airwaves.
The gamut of political opinion on the television networks, all three of them in those pre-cable days, ran roughly from center to left-of-center.