20 May 2015 – Copyright © Mark H. Goodrich
Since the Fairness Doctrine fell victim in 1987 to the anti-regulatory mood of the people and agencies controlled by ideological extremists appointed by Ronald Reagan, the issue of whether the airwaves are a public trust and media an important component of a free “marketplace of ideas”, has been centered on the Doctrine as a protector of the public interest. Indeed, Marc Fowler, then President Reagan’s newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, championed elimination of the Doctrine by stating, “The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants”. Like all things Reagan, the right myopically saw economic power through their ideological prism as at the heart of all things truly American.
While the Fairness Doctrine was unquestionably the proper approach to presentation of controversial issues in the media, making it the linchpin of preventing bias has certainly been overstated. The anti-regulatory bias of the country had been developing for a decade and more before Reagan was elected. Although canonized by the right as the instigator of small government, limited budgets and deregulation, all of those things were an already moving parade when Reagan ran for and won the election of 1980. In typical fashion, he ran to the front of that parade and pretended to have led it all along.
How the electorate lost sight of reality and bought into deregulation is a story of how the developing corporatocracy was learning to use its enormous financial and political power to control the marketplace of ideas and public perceptions. With respect to issues including consumer protection, environmental protection, worker safety, national transportation policy, health care, medical malpractice and liability for defective products, corporations were coming to understand that industry alone had the money to advertise highly distorted partisan positions as though factual, secure in the knowledge that neither government nor citizen groups were financially capable of running counter-advertising to correct the record.
The electorate was too uneducated to understand the fundamental principles of the democratic republic as a form of government, and easily persuaded to accept factual distortions in what amounted to propaganda packaged as documentary. In addition, people were too lazy and apathetic to invest time and attention to self-education. Spending ever more time in self-indulgent pursuits that were vicarious in nature – watching rather than participating – Americans increasingly found the path of least resistance to be the formation of opinions based on the blind acceptance of sound bites and bumper stickers as factual, rather than investing the time to understand complicated issues. Citizens were increasingly abrogating their most fundamental duties of citizenship as a final check and balance.
One result of changes to cross-ownership and fairness in media was the transformation of “news” into “features”. Commercial interests were concerned that viewers not sufficiently entertained would change channels, reducing market share for advertisers. And, that is the central point. Media ownership has become more concentrated (thank you again, President Reagan), and content more homogenous. There is little right-wing or left-wing bias in the media. Instead, the omni-present bias is commercial, entertaining while eliminating the need for a viewer to feel challenged, and instead elevating ad hominem attacks, fake controversies and mythical horse races above informing and educating the public on great issues of the day. News, entertainment and reality television have merged. Worse, many newspapers, magazines and internet blogs are following the corporate money, as well.
Corporate money is the key to a doctrine of commercial bias, which accepts that control over content, increased levels of advertising, and an absence of criticism towards corporate influence are legitimate reasons to stifle the marketplace of ideas in favor of what is seen by the ideological right as the inherent purity of unrestrained capitalism. It is a testament to the foibles of human nature that media ownership is able to rationalize its shameless profiteering by adopting a doctrine that all evidence shows to have failed so miserably, and abandoning its most fundamental responsibilities to inform and educate the public.