No, it wasn’t the massive tax cuts that threw open the vaults of the U.S. Treasury to those whose success was already assured. And it wasn’t the mean-spirited cuts to the economic safety net so many needed during what was then the worst recession since the 1930’s. Nope, and not his crazy space weaponry or his effort to gut the many regulations on businesses designed to protect workers, consumers or the air we breathe and the water we drink. And it wasn’t Iran-Contra (remember Oliver North and John Poindexter?).
It wasn’t even his attempts to kill the nation’s 1,100 Community Action Agencies.
It was his abolition of the Fairness Doctrine. I’m pretty sure that, if I asked 100 people what was the worst thing Ronald Reagan did, not one would cite the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a rule established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 that required radio and television stations to provide “equal time” to the opposing point of view when the media expressed opinions on public policy issues.
The doctrine was grounded in the rationale that radio and television companies were making scads of money off of a natural resource – our air – that nobody could own or, alternatively, that we all owned. If we were going to let that happen, we weren’t going to let those companies, on top of the money they were pocketing, stuff our heads with propaganda, too.
I exercised my rights under the Fairness Doctrine when WAEB was running these silly pieces by a broadcaster named Paul Harvey. He would tell clever stories that always had a sly conservative bend to them. He called them, “The Rest of the Story.” I hated them. Finally, one of them was so wrong and so blatantly conservative that I called then-station manager Jeff Frank and requested equal time. They gave it to me. Wow! Government worked! It renewed my faith in government, which most of us had in the good ol’ days.
Those who hate government tend to be the ones who don’t like it protecting others from the powerful, the affluent, the cheaters or the predators.
The Fairness Doctrine protected us from propaganda. It kept companies from biased, opinionated and/or inaccurate reporting. Companies would have to give up paid advertising to feed us hateful pablum. So, it didn’t happen much.
It’s abolition gave rise to the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Not coincidentally, Limbaugh went on the air in 1988. The guy has been feeding us lies, propaganda, muckraking, radical snipes now for more than 30 years. He spawned the likes of Glenn Beck, Bob Grant and an array of other weirdos.
Most of us don’t like being demonized, having people hate us because someone misled others about our positions, or receiving death threats because wacky right-wingers were fed poison.
You want to restore civility to our public discourse? Let’s restore the Fairness Doctrine. I’d gladly bail on MSNBC if it meant pulling the plug on Fox “News.”