The propaganda machine-5: The Fairness Doctrine and the Powell memo

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Three factors discussed so far in the creation of the propaganda machine are the rise of 24/7 cable news networks, nationwide talk radio enabled by satellite communications and toll-free numbers, and the relaxation of media ownership rules that resulted in the concentration of ownership.

The fourth factor in the creation of the propaganda machine was the elimination of the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ in 1987 that resulted in media outlets being allowed to become explicitly and overtly and consistently partisan and ideological. As Steve Rendall says, that doctrine, adopted in 1949, tried to at least limit the extent to which public airwaves could be hijacked by narrowly commercial or partisan interests or by those seeking to use them exclusively for their own profit.

[The Fairness Doctrine] 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.
. . .
There are many misconceptions about the Fairness Doctrine. For instance, it did not require that each program be internally balanced, nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view. And it didn’t require that the balance of a station’s program lineup be anything like 50/50.
. . .
The Fairness Doctrine simply prohibited stations from broadcasting from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views.

After the repeal of this doctrine during the Reagan administration, media outlets gave up any pretence to being neutral on public policy matters. This opened the way to stations broadcasting Rush Limbaugh and his clones for hour after hour. As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003):

Talk radio has not only stormed into prominence on the AM dial but it also “tends to run the gamut from conservative . . . to very conservative,” as one reporter characterized it. “There are 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts,” the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich boasts. “The ability to reach people with our message is like nothing we have ever seen before.” The right wing dominance of broadcasting is demonstrated by the shift of groups such as Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media and Phyllis Schlafley’s Eagle Forum. Back in the 1970s and 1980s they crusaded for the Fairness doctrine – which required broadcasters to present contrasting perspectives on politics – as a way to battle liberal bias on the airwaves; since the ascendance of Rush Limbaugh et al. these groups now oppose the Fairness Doctrine. (p. 116)

In fact, on March 11, 2008, Bush said that he would veto any legislation incorporating the Fairness Doctrine.

For all their bluster about the ‘liberal bias’ in the media, the people who make this charge know it is not true.

“There’s been a massive change in the media in this country in the last fifteen years,” Rush Limbaugh exulted. “Now it’s 2002 and the traditional liberal media monopoly does not exist anymore.” But such celebratory comments are usually confined to more private back-slapping sessions. The dominating conservative pundits still sing the incessant refrain that the media are dominated by . . . liberals.” (McChesney, p. 116)

This drumbeat is so steady that the media has internalized it (we will look more closely into this phenomenon in a later posting) and now goes out of its way to placate conservatives by giving their voices a lot of prominence. In 2001, CNN’s chief Walter Isaacson even went to the extent of asking conservatives how his network could be made more palatable to them. (McChesney, p. 116)

The fifth major factor in the rise of the propaganda machine may the most important one since it forms the foundation on which the other four were built. It is the deliberate policy set into motion in the 1970s to push media determinedly to the right.

To understand how this last but most important development came about, we need to go back in time to the late 1960s and look at how events during those turbulent years were perceived.

[C]onservative critics blamed the liberal media for losing the Vietnam war and for fomenting dissent in the United States. Pro-business foundations were aghast at what they perceived as anti-business sentiment prevalent among Americans, especially middle-class youth who had typically supplied a core constituency. Mainstream journalism – which, in reporting the activities of official sources, was giving people like Ralph Nader sympathetic exposure – was seen as turning Americans away from business. At that point the political Right, supported by its wealthy donors, began to devote enormous resources to criticizing and intimidating the news media. This was a cornerstone of the broader campaign to make the political culture more pro-business and more conservative. (McChesney, p. 111)</

Leaders in the conservative business community felt that action had to be taken to counter this trend. In 1971, Lewis Powell (then a corporate lawyer) was invited by his friend, the Director of the US Chamber of Commerce, to analyze the problem and make recommendations for how to deal with it. Powell submitted a confidential memo just two months before he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon.

UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science George Lakoff, who has written extensively about the importance of the way that political issues get framed in public policy debates, says that Powell reported that “all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell’s agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks.”

This memo was instrumental in setting in motion a whole program aimed at dominating the discourse in both academia and media with a decidedly pro-business message.

Next: What the Powell memo actually said and what actions emanated from it.

POST SCRIPT: Gay scientists isolate gene that causes Christianity

(Thanks to OneGoodMove.)

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