Wednesday, April 1, 2009

FDR's Fireside Chats: It's Easier to Sound Like a Strong Leader When Dissent Is Squelched
Gail Heriot

My mother, who was born in 1925, remembers FDR's Fireside Chats fondly.  As a young girl growing up in turbulent times, she was understandably looking for a strong leader with a reassuring and gentle manner.  And she found one in our 32nd President and his radio chats with the American people.

But there's a less heartwarming angle to the Fireside Chats.  Powerline's Scott Johnson briefly mentions the history of the ill-named Fairness Doctrine today, "which had its origins in the Roosevelt administration's treatment of the Yankee Radio network in the 1930's."   According to Johnson, "The Roosevelt administration did not appreciate the modest editorial criticism that appeared on the network and it squelched it."

Here's what Thomas G. West had to say about the Roosevelt Administration's involvement in the pre-history of the Fairness Doctrine:

"The first instance of serious and pervasive political censorship [of the broadcast industry] was initiated by Franklin Roosevelt’s FCC in the 1930s. The Yankee Radio network in New England frequently editorialized against Roosevelt. The FCC asked Yankee to provide details about its programming. Sensing the drift, Yankee immediately stopped broadcasting editorials in 1938. In order to drive its point home, the FCC found Yankee deficient at license renewal time. They announced,

'Radio can serve as an instrument of democracy only when devoted to the communication of information and exchange of ideas fairly and objectively presented… It cannot be devoted to the support of principles he [the broadcaster] happens to regard most favorably… .'

In other words, if you want your broadcasting license renewed, stop criticizing Roosevelt.

The FCC soon afterwards made exclusion of “partisan” content a requirement for all broadcasters. It was understood, of course, that radio stations would continue to carry such supposedly “nonpartisan” fare as presidential speeches and 'fireside chats' attacking Republicans and calling for expansions of the New Deal. In the name of 'democracy,' 'fairness' and 'objectivity,' the FCC would no longer permit stations to engage in sustained criticism of Roosevelt’s speeches and programs."

This puts FDR's Fireside Chats in a rather different light, doesn't it?  And it makes FDR seem less like the reassuring leader and more like a Latin American-style dictator on his balcony surrounded by FCC bureauthugs.  I won't tell Mom.  It will only break her heart. 

West continued his history with the introduction of the Fairness Doctrine during the Truman Administration:

"In 1949, the FCC announced its Fairness Doctrine. Broadcasters were required 'to provide coverage of vitally important controversial issues … and … a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such issues.' In practice, the Fairness Doctrine only worked in one direction: against conservatives.

During the Republican Eisenhower years, the FCC paid little attention to broadcasting content, and a number of conservative radio stations emerged. After John Kennedy was elected in 1960, his administration went on the offensive against them. Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Bill Ruder, later admitted, 'Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.'

This strategy was highly successful. Hundreds of radio stations cancelled conservative shows that they had been broadcasting. The FCC revoked the license of one radio station, WXUR of Media, Pennsylvania, a tiny conservative Christian broadcaster. When WXUR appealed to the courts, one dissenting judge noted 'that the public has lost access to information and ideas … as a result of this doctrinal sledge-hammer [i.e., the Fairness Doctrine].' The Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. It saw no free speech violation in the government shutdown of a radio station for broadcasting conservative ideas."

There are very few issues that would cause me to hit the streets in protest.  Pitchforks are not really my style.  Nevertheless, the decidedly unfair Fairness Doctrine is one of the issues for which all freedom-loving Americans would have to do so.  I'll be there if it happens.  With my pitchfork.  I promise.  And I will happily do time in prison.

That's why I don't think it will happen--notwithstanding idiotic statements from Senator Debbie Stabenow, Senator John Kerry and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.  This is not 1937--not ...uh ... yet anyway.  I am confident that I won't be alone out there on the streets.  Here's the only tough part:  Rather than re-institute the Fairness Doctrine itself, those who would squelch debate are far more likely to come up with something different and innocuous-sounding that will make talk radio economically unfeasible.   For example, talk radio stations could be required to provide local content. Or they could be required to air an excessive number of public service announcements.  The talk would simply cease in many markets--especially if music formats were exempt from the rule.  The good news is that these tactics can be defeated too.  All that is necessary is that members of the public be alerted to the possibility early.  And I think that's starting to happen.

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Gail Heriot


'Nevertheless, the decidedly unfair Fairness Doctrine is one of the issues for which all freedom-loving Americans would have to do so. I'll be there if it happens. With my pitchfork. I promise. And I will happily do time in prison.'

I don't believe you. I don't think you have the guts to stare down the cops in their riot gear. You'll just blog about it,, maybe write a law review article or two, and that's it. But go ahead and tell yourself that.

Posted by: Bobby C. | Apr 1, 2009 5:18:32 PM

Wow. Bobby C., what's with the hostility?

Posted by: Elena | Apr 1, 2009 8:29:38 PM

You might be right, Bobby C. There’s no way of knowing unless and until it happens. But if your argument is that academics are generally timid about protesting in the streets, that’s really not something that is borne out by the evidence. If anything, my fellow academics take to the streets a little too readily (and alas, usually for the wrong reasons). I’m not sure I’d say that it takes overwhelming intestinal fortitude. If you’re thinking about academics with guts, it’s best to think Joshua Chamberlain, not John William Ward, the Amherst College President who famously got himself arrested for protesting the Vietnam War.

If your point is about me personally, here’s hoping I never get put to this or any test. But I figure if my ancestors could, as I understand one of them did, stand by Chamberlain at Little Round Top, the least I can do is kick up a fuss over the disembowelment of the First Amendment. If you’re up for it, bring your pitch fork.

Posted by: Gail | Apr 1, 2009 9:59:15 PM

WXUR of media PA was the station of my husband's grandfather Dr. Carl McIntire. How quickly everyone has forgotten how insidious this law is to free speech. This is the main thing to fight for.

Posted by: athena | Apr 2, 2009 5:26:35 AM