Will President Donald Trump attempt to reinstate federal rules that require balance in political news coverage?
After two early-morning tweets on Tuesday excoriating “Fake News Media” and “RIGGED” Google searches, including a pledge to end what he claimed was the suppression of conservative voices, Trump sounds like his administration might pursue some form of media regulation that mandates balance, like the “fairness doctrine” that the Federal Communications Commission once followed. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says the administration is “taking a look” at whether Google searches should be regulated to address Trump’s worries.
And if Trump does push for new regulations of the media and the Internet, history suggests the right will rally around him.
Conservatives, in fact, used to argue in favor of mandating political balance in media, even though they’ve spent the last two decades ardently opposing it. Since the 1990s, the right has seen the fairness doctrine as a specter of government censorship, a tool used by the left to silence conservative voices. Trump, though, has taken to the idea of forcing political balance — defined as pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump voices — on mainstream news sources. His targets aren’t just specific networks or programs that are under fire, either; he’s going after entire platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook. Trump’s tweets suggest that he thinks those platforms need a new fairness doctrine, too.
The fairness doctrine was initially established in 1949 in an attempt to ensure that broadcasters, who were granted government licenses to use public airwaves, would not engage in propaganda — a genuine fear just five years after the end of World War II. Broadcasters were required to provide balanced coverage of controversies, even if they had to give away free airtime to do so. For most of the 1950s and ’60s, conservatives opposed it. They believed then that because right-wing ideas like abolishing Social Security were considered inherently controversial, the fairness doctrine had a “chilling effect,” causing stations to black out such ideas altogether.
Right-wing anger over biased election coverage is nothing new — conservatives were furious over coverage of the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964. In the 1970s and ’80s, though, as conservatism became an increasingly powerful force in American politics, a number of prominent conservatives came out in favor of the fairness doctrine they had long opposed. What had changed? The 1968 election, which put Richard Nixon, a friend to right-leaning media, in the White House. With their hands suddenly on the levers of federal power, the right began to see the doctrine as a way of bringing more conservative voices and ideas into national broadcasts.
The leader of this new push was Reed Irvine, an economist with the Federal Reserve. He founded Accuracy in Media in 1969 as a watchdog organization that would police mainstream media outlets and work to convince them that they were unfairly excluding conservative points of view. AIM presented itself as neutral — concerned with accuracy, not conservatism — but it exclusively sought out evidence that news media were biased against the right, filing complaints with the FCC against programs Irvine felt were “one-sided and biased.”
Filing such complaints was a new tactic for conservatives. The change reflected an understanding that the FCC could be an ideological institution that conservatives could use effectively under Nixon. The Nixon administration agreed, seeing the doctrine as a powerful tool for managing the press. The administration used the FCC to press cases against negative reporting, as it did during its battle with CBS over the 1971 documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon.” Nixon was deeply interested in pressuring television news networks, which he felt unfairly covered first the campaign and then his presidency. (He even put White House aide Charles Colson in charge of promoting Edith Efron’s book, “The News Twisters,” which argued, using not-very-rigorous methods, that the networks were biased against Nixon in 1968.)
The administration saw AIM as a powerful tool, too. When the Nixon administration put together a plan to scale back public broadcasting, Colson worked with AIM to file fairness doctrine complaints about PBS programs, as he explained in a memo outlining his efforts against the network. A partnership with AIM was perfect, because it could serve, as one Nixon aide put it, as “a mechanism under which private non-governmental pressures can be brought to bear on the three networks.”
National Review publisher Bill Rusher also backed the fairness doctrine, as did conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. The FCC ceased enforcing it in 1987 during the Reagan administration, as FCC Chairman Mark Fowler saw deregulating the communications industry as his primary obligation at the agency. But even still, conservative Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott tried repeatedly to reinstate the doctrine through the bipartisan Fairness in Broadcasting Act. They only abandoned it in 1993, the last serious attempt to revive the doctrine.
The existential threat to right-wing media was gone by the time Reagan’s FCC gave up on the rules. In the late 1980s, with Republican presidents in charge, there was no influential conservative broadcasting to silence, no reason to see the fairness doctrine as an existential threat to a major source of conservative political energy. Only in 1993, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House and Rush Limbaugh, who went national in 1988, taking over the airwaves, did conservatives return to an earlier view of the doctrine as a tool of liberal censorship. Limbaugh dubbed the 1993 version of the fairness doctrine legislation the “Hush Rush” bill, and it attracted no Republican cosponsors, a clear sign of the changing political atmosphere.
Since then, the fairness doctrine has become a right-wing bogeyman, trotted out during election years as evidence of the left’s willingness to use government agencies to bully the right and shut down free speech and the right’s commitment to deregulation. Despite that line of attack, it was the Obama administration that officially scrapped the rule, which technically remained on the books, though unenforced, in 2011. These days, most experts agree that, if the fairness doctrine ever made sense, it no longer works for a world that has expanded beyond the limited scope of public airwaves. Cable news (including Fox), satellite radio, podcasts and the Internet have so altered the media landscape that the regulation as written would have little practical effect.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to regulate news platforms, which is why we should pay attention to the period when conservatives embraced the regulation of news. Trump’s media complaints — and his apparent desire to wield government power to solve them — call back to this earlier era when Republicans longed to use the government to crack down on the allegedly liberal media. And it’s easy to imagine broad support for such regulation re-emerging on the right. All the same hallmarks are there: an administration furious with media coverage, a conservative media complex eager to create and spread pseudoscientific evidence of media bias, and a movement willing to ignore its deregulatory commitments whenever government power flows in its favor.
Nicole Hemmer is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.