The Fairness Doctrine Was the Most Deserving Target of Rush Limbaugh’s Rage
Rush Limbaugh’s half-century career in radio began as a 16-year-old at a small station in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1967. (If you just muttered to yourself, “Where?” then you’ve already got a good sense of how unlikely Rush’s rise to prominence was.) Notably, one of Limbaugh’s first jobs in radio was in community ascertainment, which meant canvassing local businesses, churches, and interest groups to ask about the kinds of content they wanted to hear on the airwaves. The programs produced because of these expeditions were then parked on the least desirable time slots of the week, like Sunday morning.
Station owners were not, after all, truly owners; they were merely borrowers, temporarily using a slice of the electromagnetic spectrum via a license granted to them by the federal government. That license came with strings attached.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required community canvassing as part of its requirement that stations operate in the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” License holders couldn’t just air whatever content they wanted (or what they thought their listeners wanted). No, they had a vague responsibility to air programming that their listeners needed, and to do so whether or not listeners actually, well, listened.
In the 1960s, the FCC began enforcing another outgrowth of the public interest mandate which was known as the Fairness Doctrine. It stipulated that station owners had an obligation to provide coverage of “controversial issues of public importance”—like current events, policy debates, and so on—and do so without exclusively representing a single point of view. If, say, a station aired a program that criticized the U.S. conduct of the war in Vietnam, then it had an obligation to air someone supporting the war effort. Long before Fox News adopted the slogan, the FCC sought to make the airwaves a “fair and balanced” medium.
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