It’s the lack of a fairness doctrine, not Limbaugh, that’s the real problem

Sam Smith

The Rush Limbaugh affair is a reminder of a silent split in the progressive community: some of its members believe a lot more in free speech than others. As liberals have become more a demographic and social class rather than an ideology, the once key virtue of free speech has increasingly gotten short shrift, witness the near total absence of the issue in discussions about Rush Limbaugh.

The puritanization of liberalism has troubled me deeply, in part because I grew up in a time when it was liberals – and not conservative talk show hosts – who were upsetting people and getting into trouble for it. I felt it directly when I was almost denied admission to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School because of  wrong perceptions of the views of my Cold War liberal parents. Here are some of the questions the Commandant of the Coast Guard formally demanded that I answer:

    10. Have your parents ever discussed with you their participation in these organizations which were dominated by Communists and supported the Communist cause?

    11. State the names and addresses of Communist Party members and sympathizers with whom you and your parents have associated.

    12. To what extent have your parents indoctrinated and influenced you concerning the politics of these and other Communist groups?

    14. Did your parents ever make any books, documents or periodicals of the Communist Party or Communist front organizations available to you?

    15. Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? If so, who recruited you and what type of indoctrination were you given?

    16. List all contributions made by you to the Communist Party, USA or any of its front organizations, and any remuneration you may have received for services rendered by you to it.

    17. What are your views on Communism and the Communist Party?

I successfully fought back against the absurd implications based on such things as my parents’ support of a boycott of nylon stockings on behalf of the garment workers’ union and that my father, like a number of Attorneys General at the time, had belonged to the National Lawyers Guild.

I won and actually had a fine time in the Coast Guard, but I swore I would forever defend the right of Americans to say what they wanted no matter how much I disagreed.

Thus, much as I differ with Limbaugh, I also am deeply troubled by the liberal reaction to his remarks. I can’t imagine a decent America in which Limbaugh isn’t allowed to be the damn fool that he is.

One of those who understands how to handle such matters is Robert Egger, who two years ago – as director of DC’s Community Kitchen – responded beautifully to Limbaugh on another matter.

One problem with forcibly shutting Limbaugh up is that it gives fuel to those who want to shut up progressives. In fact, even as the Limbaugh controversy was underway, it was happening. A number of newspapers were refusing to run a Doonesbury comic strip that made fun of a Texas law requiring women to have an ultrasound before an abortion. Gary Trudeau’s syndicate even offered a substitute strip.

But liberals obsessing over Limbaugh hardly noticed what was happening to their own free speech, just as they have ignored the civil liberties implications of their support of hate crime legislation, which punishes someone for what they think.

There’s something else being ignored. The rise of the right on the airwaves has been the direct result of a 1987 FCC ruling doing away with the Fairness Doctrine. As Wikipedia notes:

“The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.”

I was in the broadcasting business under the fairness doctrine and there was nothing onerous about it. It simply put some pressure on stations to be fairer than they might otherwise had been. What has happened since 1987 proves its utility.

What has happened is that a tiny number of major corporations have bought a public park known as the airwaves and now determine who gets to speak there. We wouldn’t allow this in a public park and we shouldn’t allow it on the on the public airwaves.

The elimination of the fairness doctrine shares with the Citizens United ruling responsibility for the most damaging assault on our democratic system in recent history.

It would be nice if a few liberals got as excited about it as they do about Rush Limbaugh.

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