The FM function on my car radio hasn’t been working lately, so to while away the hours as I drive to and from visits to family in the deep south of Ontario, I am reduced to searching the AM dial. In the dark of night, when the stars are out and the radio airwaves are bouncing madly off the upper atmosphere, this can be a scary thing.
Pressing the “seek” button leads to the breathlessly frantic intonations of a preacher from the Bible belt warning anyone listening the day of judgement will soon be upon us, so “get ready.” I fear he may be right, though not in the way he means it. The signal fades, a sports talk and phone-in show takes over and I’m listening to someone’s opinion about A-Rod’s recently admitted steroid use, and the latest off-boards exploits of Kobe Bryant. Apparently he’s a surprisingly good dancer for a big man.
I “seek” again and inevitably land on one of the hundreds of AM stations in the U. S. that devote many hours to airing hugely popular conservative talk shows. The commentator is in full rant. They all sound alike, but I can tell it’s not Rush Limbaugh, he who virtually invented the genre that helped keep the Republican administration of now-former President George W. Bush in power long enough to tragically prolong an unjustifiable war in Iraq for years, ruin the U. S. economy, and by extension much of the rest of the world’s.
“Are Americans really that stupid?” a Muslim commentator asked incredulously when the Bush-led U. S. invaded Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the U. S. eight years ago. The answer is no, not all of them, not by a long shot. But conservative talk radio that mindlessly wrapped itself in the flag, supported the big lie, pandered to the lowest common populist agenda, failed to ask the big questions and tell both sides of the story, have a lot to answer for. But there’s no mea culpa here, no sorry we blew it. It’s business as usual on the conservative airwaves: Anything liberal, and anything that passes in the U. S. for “far left-wing” like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is demonized: They’re out to ruin the country, usurp the Constitution and its First Amendment guarantee of free speech, even establish a “socialist” dictatorship. Man the ramparts.
In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, scarcely more than a month after the inauguration of newly-elected Democratic President Barack Obama on a popular tide of hope, he and certain other Democrats are subject to hateful attack by conservative commentators on the talk show airwaves and the Internet. The targets include former President Bill Clinton, who the conservatives always loved to hate, and who sadly presents an easy target. The man should just go away and hide his head in shame for a good, long time. But I certainly wouldn’t call him a “white-haired termite” as one talk-show host did this past week on my car radio.
Alas, President Obama didn’t do himself and his well-meaning bipartisan intentions any favours when, out of frustration, I suspect, he told Republican members of Congress reluctant to approve a multi-billion-dollar stimulus package to stop paying so much attention to what Limbaugh had to say. That was several weeks ago. All he succeeded in doing was to breathe new life into what was becoming a spent force. Eventually, the collective wisdom of the people catches up; to the truth. The political pendulum has swung from neoconservative hard right to at least the centre, in the U. S. and elsewhere, including Canada. Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper was smart enough to see it coming on the flood tide of economic bad news — the consequences of neo-conservative deregulation — and called an election just in time. Now he’s busy transforming himself from conservative to liberal.
But back to the U.S., to make matters worse, some prominent Democrats suddenly began musing out loud about reinstating something called the “Fairness Policy.” Gerry Brown, the former governor of California and now that state’s attorney-general, was foolish enough to go on “Savage Nation,” one of the most popular conservative talk shows and tell its host, Michael Savage, that it might be a good idea if the government had some control over what hit the airwaves. Dr. Savage, as he’s sometimes called, couldn’t believe his luck and took full advantage of the opportunity. Since then he has vowed to fight the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.
The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that required holders of broadcast licenses to cover controversial issues and to do so in a fair and balanced manner. The policy was in effect, and even supported by the Supreme Court, from 1949 to 1987 when it was dropped by the Administration of President Ronald Reagan as part of his deregulation attitude.
Even now though the FCC requires licensees “to operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance.”
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) still has a policy in place similar to the former U. S. Fairness Doctrine.
Should government be able to censor or otherwise regulate political discussion on the airwaves or the Internet, for that matter? What if it’s hateful, or even just grossly inaccurate and unbalanced? To be honest, I don’t know. I’m a conservative, liberal democrat. I believe in basic democratic principles. They should not be tampered with lightly.
But this I do know, conservative talk radio in the U. S. had, and still has, a huge audience. It had, and still has, a lot of power to influence the political opinions of millions of people. But with that power comes a terrible responsibility. It has failed to live up to that responsibility on a tragic scale.
And it’s not just Americans who are now suffering the consequences, but Canadians too, and countless other people around the world.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2009.