There Was No “Golden Age” of Broadcast Regulation

by on June 7, 2019 · 0 comments

Slate recently published an astonishing piece of revisionist history under the title, “Bring Back the Golden Age of Broadcast Regulation,” which suggested that the old media regulatory model of the past would be appropriate for modern digital media providers and platforms. In the essay, April Glaser suggests that policymakers should resurrect the Fairness Doctrine and a host of old Analog Era content controls to let regulatory bureaucrats address Digital Age content moderation concerns.

In a tweetstorm, I highlighted a few examples of why the so-called Golden Era wasn’t so golden in practice. I began by noting that the piece ignores the troubling history of FCC speech controls and unintended consequences of regulation. That regime gave us limited, bland choices–and a whole host of First Amendment violations. We moved away from that regulatory model for very good reasons.

For those glorifying the Fairness Doctrine, I encourage them to read the great Nat Hentoff’s excellent essay, “The History & Possible Revival of the Fairness Doctrine,” about the real-world experience of life under the FCC’s threatening eye. Hentoff notes:

Others were harassed in ways that were both humorous and horrifying. For example, go back and review the amazing FCC (and FBI!) investigation of The Kingsmen’s song “Louie Louie,” due to fears about its unintelligible lyrics:

Or go back and read former CBS president Fred Friendly’s 1975 book (The Good Guys, the Bad Guys & the First Amendment) about abuses of the Fairness Doctrine during both Republican and Democratic administrations. This stuff from Kennedy years, which I summarized in old book, is quite shocking:

And then there was the “golden era” of broadcast regulation under Nixon, where regulatory harassment intensified to counter what had happened during Democratic administrations. Here’s Jesse Walker summarizing those dark days:

Also read Tom Hazlett on the Nixon years and all the broadcast meddling that happened on a ongoing basis. “License harassment of stations considered unfriendly to the Administration became a regular item on the agenda at White House policy meetings,” he notes. And then even the Smothers Brothers became victims!

This is how Tom Hazlett perfectly summarized the choice before us regarding whether to let regulatory bureaucracies decide what is “fair” in media. This is exactly the same question we should be asking today when people suggest reviving the old “golden era” media control regime.

Keep in mind, the examples of content meddling cited here most involve the Fairness Doctrine. Indecency rules, the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, and other FCC policies gave politicians others levers of exerting influence and control over speech. The meddling was endless.

This was no “Golden Era” or broadcast regulation–unless, that is, you prefer bland, boring, limited choices and endless bureaucratic harassment of media. No amount of wishful thinking or revisionist history can counter the hard realities of that dismal era in our nation’s history. We should wholeheartedly and vociferously reject calls to resurrect it.

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