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The Death of Fairness, the Birth of Division

Many of us bemoan the fact that America is beset by division, politically and socially, with people lined up in one camp or another with no tolerance for those who disagree, with absolute certainty that we are right.

We know those divisions have been deepened in recent years, certainly since the presidency of Barack Obama and then his polar opposite, Donald Trump. Yes, people believe what they want to believe, and their views often have their inception, and are then nurtured, by the media sources that they look to for information.

Republicans are devoted to Fox News and other right-wing sources, such as Newsman or Breitbart. Democrats watch MSNBC or read The Washington Post or The New York Times. That, of course, is a broad oversimplification, but the point is that today we look to news sources with which we feel most comfortable and believe are most trustworlthy.

It's as though we are in an echo chamber, we consume information that supports our ideas and political viewpoints, and we believe those who do not are just flat out wrong.

Why is that? What has caused this proliferation of one-sided reporting that feeds into this phenomenon?

Kim Curry, author of The Death of Fairness, believes a major factor is the 1986 decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rescind the Fairness Doctrine.

With that action, broadcasters no longer are required to present “contrasting points of view” on their airwaves, and Curry believes that’s one reason why our nation is so politically and socially divided today.

In a blurb promoting his book, Curry writes, "A variety of radio hucksters began preaching conspiracies and lies as facts, and paved America’s path to social division."

Think about that for a minute.

The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 by the FCC to require that holders of broadcast licenses present both sides of controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable, and balanced.

As Wikipedia points out, 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. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered by some to be a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.

Hence came Rush Limbaugh.

Explains Wikipedia, the 1987 repeal of the fairness doctrine enabled the rise of talk radio that has been described as "unfiltered" divisive and/or vicious: "In 1988, a savvy former ABC Radio executive named Ed McLaughlin signed Rush Limbaugh — then working at a little-known Sacramento station — to a nationwide syndication contract. McLaughlin offered Limbaugh to stations at an unbeatable price: free. All they had to do to carry his program was to set aside four minutes per hour for ads that McLaughlin’s company sold to national sponsors. The stations got to sell the remaining commercial time to local advertisers."

From his earliest days on the air, Limbaugh trafficked in conspiracy theories, divisiveness, even viciousness" (e.g., "feminazis"). Prior to 1987 people using much less controversial verbiage had been taken off the air as obvious violations of the fairness doctrine.

And, Limbaugh spawned all too many to count, certainly on the right. And, of course, there is plenty of competition from the left -- all geared to stirring emotions, generating clicks and social media responses, and branding those "personalities" to the point that they can command multi-million dollar contracts and six figure speaking fees.

All of this is explored in our latest podcast at NFN Radio News, as I interview Author Kim Curry, who strongly believes that the ultimate demise of the Fairness Doctrine actually infringes on our right to free speech, which was one of the arguments opponents made against that policy. He believes a version of that doctrine needs to be restored and looks to Canada as an example.

It's an informative and insightful discussion. Check it out:

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