Wednesday, February 13, 2013

February Excerpt: Policies of Polarization by Ahmed M. Soliman

Policies of Polarization
Ahmed M. Soliman
PHOTO: Maria Maddaloni

With the 2012 election now behind us, the country is focused on the importance of uniting again behind our president, and hopefully changing the tone in Washington. It is what we ultimately do as Americans: we aspire to unite in strength and resolve. In fact, it is because our aspiration to solve problems is so innately woven into our DNA as Americans that presidential candidates often make “bridge building” and “changing Washington” a common theme in their campaigns. George W. Bush campaigned on it in 2000, as did Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

In 2012, Romney pointed out that Obama had promised to change Washington, but failed to do so because, he argued, Obama was a failed president. The hard truth, however, is that times have changed, and the task of uniting Americans in Washington has become about as feasible as herding mice. But, contrary to the assertions of Mitt Romney and others during the recent campaign, it is not the former community organizer’s fault that Washington remains so divided. Nor was it George Bush’s fault. The fact of the matter is that the divide in America today exists as a matter of public policy, literally enshrined in our modern American law.

One who wishes to understand why America’s divisions have become so entrenched needs only to examine two critical–and conservative ideologically-driven–policy decisions that have fully fermented in the last 25 years: (1) President Reagan’s elimination of the Fairness Doctrine; and (2) conservative Supreme Court Justices’ refusal to rein in gerrymandering.

The first of the two, the Fairness Doctrine, was a Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) regulation that required broadcasters to provide news and issues-oriented programming that fairly presented opposing viewpoints on controversial subjects. The doctrine’s genesis was the Radio Act of 1927, created to regulate competing signals on the finite radio frequency spectrum. The chief proponent of the bill, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who would later become President Hoover, argued that regulating a limited number of broadcast licenses and requiring the licensees to provide current events programming with opposing points of view satisfied the First Amendment because the freedom of speech listener is paramount over the freedom of the speech maker. This concept was upheld as passing First Amendment muster by the Supreme Court in the 1943 decision of National Broadcasting Co. v. United States. The National Broadcasting Co. decision paved the way for the FCC to create the modern Fairness Doctrine in 1949. Specifically, the FCC required broadcast media licensees to: (1) provide coverage of vitally important and controversial issues of interest in the community served by licensees; and (2) provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such issues.

The Fairness Doctrine was the key regulation of news broadcasters for nearly forty years, until its demise in 1989, when President Ronald Reagan’s tidal wave of deregulation washed it away. The official removal of the Fairness Doctrine began in 1987, when the FCC repealed the doctrine as contrary to the public interest. The Democratic-controlled Congress then passed a law reversing the FCC ruling. However, President Reagan vetoed that law in 1989, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had again ruled the Fairness Doctrine to be constitutional in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.

The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine at the conclusion of the 1980s paved the way for a slew of unchallenged right-wing broadcasts on radio and on television throughout the 1990s. They included the program of Rush Limbaugh on AM radio, and the subsequent introduction of Fox News on cable television. The ratings bonanza of those media efforts soon caused another television news network to follow suit and abandon its self-imposed commitment to a fair presentation of both sides of controversial issues: MSNBC shifted toward an unchallenged liberal presentation of current events.

If you would like to read more of this article in Empirical, the February issue is now available at your local bookstore and online at our website.

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