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Does the demise of the Fairness Doctrine explain the 2016 election?

I haven’t thought about the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in a long time. But a very smart post-election discussion by two Princeton political historians brought it to mind as a possible key factor in explaining not only the result of the 2016 election but in the growing polarization of our society across partisan and ideological lines, a polarization that contributes to the demise of compromise and often seems to be rendering our society ungovernable.

Any such notion is susceptible to exaggeration. So proceed carefully if you are inclined to think it through. I just want to put it on the table as we – some of us at least – struggle to understand what has happened to the news-and-politics continuum over recent decades.

For background: Before the age of cable TV, the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates TV and radio broadcasting, enforced a rule call the Fairness Doctrine. TV and radio stations were expected to have a certain amount of news and public affairs programming as a condition of holding their licenses but were required to be relatively even-handed and allow for a range of opposing views to be broadcast. This led to the early decades of TV news being dominated by the old-fashioned, so-called “objectivity” model personified by Walter Cronkite. The contemporary model of Fox and MSNBC catering to a conservative or liberal audience would have violated the doctrine.

Maybe that sounds like official censorship to you, but the Supreme Court was asked that question and ruled that the Fairness Doctrine was permissible under the First Amendment because of the limited number of broadcast licenses.

Cable TV blew the limits off that number, and now the internet has further reduced any limits on how many voices can be heard. The FCC dropped the “fairness” rule in 1987. Fox, MSNBC and talk radio have prospered with a lineup that caters to a left- or -right-oriented audience that apparently likes to have its biases confirmed and reinforced.

The ideological hardening of the right was often said to have been facilitated by what some call the “Fox news effect,” referring to the tendency of the Fox News Network to preach and constantly confirm a one-sided set of conservative facts and arguments. MSNBC may have a similar effect on the left, but has a smaller audience and a smaller impact.

This piece from the Pew Research Center includes a bar graph showing the huge domination of Fox as the main source of news for Trump voters, more than double the numbers of Clinton voters who favored any news sources.

More than a year ago, I interviewed The New Yorker magazine’s Hendrik Hertzberg just as Trump was establishing his dominance in the Republican field. Hertzberg argued that not only Fox but right-wing talk radio was “infantilizing” some conservatives into a fairly simple good-versus-evil analysis of all policy matters. Hertzberg analogized this trend to the battle between heroes and villains of professional wrestling.

Well, if that’s what it was, it seems to have worked. We have a president who casts many complicated policy matters in simplistic good-vs.-evil terms (and, as you have perhaps noticed, his side is always the side of goodness).

So, to loop back to where I started: For a recent weekend of alumni events, Princeton University staged a conversation between two eminent historians of U.S. politics, Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse, about the meaning of the election in historical context.

The transcript of the conversation is here, and includes many big insights, coupled with the usual disclaimer that, as historians, they can draw on the past to create a context for understanding the present, but not to predict the future. I often wish all the TV pundits would stop asking each other what’s going to happen next and/or pretending that they know.

But, if you can handle the modesty of that disclaimer, Wilentz and Kruse provided a lot of context that actually made me feel a little better about the present moment. A few excerpts below, starting with the one that set me off on the Fairness Doctrine. 

From Kruse, talking about the role of the Newt Gingrich revolution in Republican congressional politics in paving the way for the Trump moment: “Well, with the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 by the Reagan administration, and the rise of first talk radio and then the internet, you have a very fractured media landscape in which you don’t have to offer both sides. You instead press one point of view very aggressively. And so you had the rise of Rush Limbaugh, the rise of Matt Drudge. You had the creation of, then, Fox News. And there were efforts on the left to try to counter this. They were never as effective as those on the right. But you see the media landscape start to fracture, and so politics becomes incredibly polarized.” 

Also during the discussion, Wilentz commented that recent polarization has created “A dynamic … that has led to a radicalization of both parties so that neither party’s really a party anymore.” 

Kruse: What do you mean, not a party?

Wilentz: In the sense that the middle is gone. I mean, political parties historically in American history have always been filters. They’ve always been coalitions, and they act as a stabilizing force in American history. We’re Americans and we’re never going to agree about everything, and there ought to be conflict in politics.

But up till now it had been run by parties that had coalitions which, in effect, helped stifle some of those arguments before they became part of a general election. That has fallen away. You had a party structure in the last election on the Republican side that collapsed in the face of a challenge from outside. Say what you will about the president, he was not a Republican particularly before he ran for president. He was able to take that party’s base and move it elsewhere. That’s unthinkable, I think, in a party era. 

Later, Wilentz asked Kruse: “So where did Trump come from? I mean, how do we explain this? 

Kruse: Well, we’ve seen all the parts of Trump before. We’ve seen the nativism. We’ve seen the hostility and the use of immigration as a political issue. We’ve seen the nationalism. We’ve seen the conservative populism, the people like George Wallace. I think that what’s really novel here is that these different things that had existed in isolation have come together and really swept away both the conservative opposition that we saw in the primary, and then swept away clean in the general election. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this before, but his success came from putting those together and fueling them in a way that we’d never seen before.

Wilentz: I think that’s right. The question is why did it come together now rather than before? I mean, the Trump phenomenon, people are saying, is not just an American phenomenon, right? There’s Brexit. There’s everything that’s going on in Western Europe. There’s the Russians, always out there somewhere. I’m wondering whether the events of 2008 — the financial collapse — were such a shock to the political system and the ways in which people live their lives that someone like Trump could emerge. 

When Trump came down the escalator in Trump Tower, no one thought anything was going to happen. But what I think he understood was that the Republican Party had lost touch with its base. Finally the base turned around and basically flipped them the finger and said, “We’re going with this guy.” The issues that he was talking about — like trade — those are all explicable coming off of 2008. But I also think the political dynamic went back further and that finally … maybe Trump is Thermidor. Trump is the end of the process. 

Finally, an exchange in which Wilentz calls it ironic that Hillary Clinton lost as a result of working class voters defecting to Trump — ironic because Bill Clinton had been the most recent Democrat to draw working class voters back to the Democrats:

Wilentz: I think 2008 did change the landscape, especially for the Clinton wing of the party. Hillary Clinton had to run against some of her husband’s actions because the world had changed in 2008. One of the ironies was that Bill Clinton brought a section of the white working class back into the Democratic Party. He took some of those Reagan Democrats back. Those are the people who ended up electing Trump. The irony couldn’t be greater. The Democrats are going to have to figure out again what they’re about.

Kruse: I think it’s also about how they made their appeal. I don’t want to bash identity politics here, but to some degree they played up not just issues of her being the first woman, but also Trump’s sexism. Rather than play ads about moderate Republicans who couldn’t look their daughters in the eye, they should have been playing ads about working-class contractors that Trump stiffed. It’s what they did with Romney — presented him as the boss who fired you, and everybody could relate to that. And I think if you play those ads in Michigan, that’s going to resonate with people a lot more. 

Wilentz: I don’t think that the candidate [he’s referring to Hillary Clinton] used the words “jobs” or “infrastructure” from the convention on, for example. Politically dopey. 

The full Wilentz-Kruse discussion is here.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/27/2017 - 11:55 am.

    Does it explain it?

    In a word, no. It’s a contributing factor, and perhaps a major one, but explaining Trump’s election to the White House seems to me more complicated than a single factor, including that one.

    We’ve had demagogues before, and more articulate ones (e.g., Huey Long, Father Coughlin), in eras when there was no such thing as a “fairness doctrine,” yet those demagogues never gained traction on a national level like Trump managed to do, and at least in the case of Huey Long, the Great Depression gave working stiffs even more reason to lambaste the powers-that-be than was the case in 2016.

    This is a schizophrenic society in several ways, one of which is the persistent popularity of making scapegoats of individuals and groups that, it might just as persuasively be argued, have provided us with long-term benefits, economic, social and political. Much of the analysis of Trump (though perhaps not his advisors, including Bannon and Kushner) gives him too much credit. He has so far displayed a surprising ignorance of the society he lives in and the political process he managed to win in what looks like, more and more, a historical accident. Calling him a “puppet” doesn’t give Trump enough credit, but I also think suggesting that he somehow intuited that the electorate, or at least a sizable minority of it, was moving in a particular direction provides him with political instincts that, based on his first 3 months in office, apparently abandoned him as soon as he took the oath of office.

    In that context, I’d say the mainstream media, whether trying to provide their own version of “fairness” or unabashedly hawking a particular political line of approach, failed to provide the public with the information necessary to be genuinely informed voters. That’s something I view as necessary in order for something approaching democracy to function as it was intended to by those guys in wigs in Philadelphia back in the 1770s. Instead, fair or not, we got an obsession (and we still get that same obsession, at every electoral level) with the “horse race” aspects of an election, with a focus on poll numbers and, often, sheer speculation. What’s lost in that horse race is meaningful interpretation that voters might make use of. Much was made of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server—until the election was over, at which point it disappeared from front pages and TV lead-ins. It was a bright, shiny object, and got far more attention than Clinton policy proposals, and whether they’d actually work, or benefit the society.

    Trump himself became, and has remained so far, a similar bright, shiny object, one that defies the assumptions underlying any attempt at media “fairness.” He says stupid things all the time, revealing both his privileged background and the ignorance of ordinary life that accompanies that privileged state, yet, no matter how dumb the statement — think of all the idiocy on display during his campaign, not to mention, for example, his insistence that his inaugural crowd was the biggest in American, if not galactic, history — it was treated as “important” by both critics and supporters in the media universe. No one with credibility outside a very narrow right-or-left-wing audience was willing to say, “This proposal makes no sense,” or “This policy suggestion is blatantly unconstitutional,” “That statement simply isn’t true,” or “This policy will explode the national debt and cripple the economy.”

    Trump treated the campaign, and to a degree treats the office of the presidency at this moment, as simply a continuation of his reality show, fairness doctrine or not. He’s used to having other people do the work and then taking credit for it, while assigning blame for failure to some underling. That’s what “celebrities” often do. It’s also — I’ve harped on this before — what Medieval rulers used to do. Let the serfs do the dirty work, rely on vassals to keep things under control, and when things go wrong, make sure the blame is assigned elsewhere.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 04/27/2017 - 02:32 pm.

    Folks on the left seem to listen to

    Bernie Sanders on many issues but not on what caused Trump to win in 2016. Bernie said the Democratic Party has become the party of the elites, lost the trust of the working class, in bed with Wall Street and afraid to engage in debates of differing ideas. He did not however mention the fairness doctrine.

    Seems to me that he is more on point than all the folks reaching for straws rather than policies for getting beat by Trump in 2016. Did the fairness doctrine cause the Dems to lose 1,000 seats, both DC houses, multiple Governorships and the White House to the GOP since 2008 because of the fairness doctrine or policies?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/27/2017 - 08:46 pm.

      Not by itself

      But it made it easy for Republicans to get away with the gerrymandering that enabled Trump to get elected despite a record breaking loss in the popular vote, as well as allowing the GOP to gain seats even without the support of a majority of the population.
      And of course Sanders is not now, and has never been, a member of the Democratic party.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/27/2017 - 10:12 pm.


      I agree that Bernie’s critique of the Democratic Party seems largely correct. What’s astonishing to me is that so many of those people that Bernie suggests (correctly, I think) Democrats have forgotten and/or ignored, turned around and voted (and still support) a candidate, now President, who shares those same characteristics, only more so. Donald Trump has as much in common with ordinary working Americans as any medieval king likely had with the serfs who produced his food and made his furniture, and is similarly concerned with their welfare. Moreover, while they’ve tossed out of office many hundreds of Democratic officeholders in the past decade, those ordinary American workers and voters have replaced those Democrats with members of a political party that does not, and has not for a hundred years had, their economic and social interests at heart.

      Instead of “draining the swamp,” the Oval Office occupant has brought into his cabinet and into the federal government many of the very same people who created the swamp in the first place, and have helped to maintain it since its creation.

  3. Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/27/2017 - 06:59 pm.

    The internet

    At its birth was hailed as the start of a new era of “free information”, and would lead to a world so interconnected that all that separates us would be washed away in the recognition that all have so much more that unites than divides. Instead, it’s created the strongest ideological walls the modern world has known, where lifetimes can be spent in the corners that provide the most reinforcement to one’s preconceived beliefs, interacting only with those exactly like oneself. A world where we’ve made separation as convenient and attractive as its ever been. That’s what has caused our current state, unfortunately I don’t see any means to reverse it.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/27/2017 - 10:08 pm.


    One of the paradoxes of our times is that to the human being or “consumer” of information, is presented with a bewildering array of competing information from an apparently competitive market of “information suppliers.” But at the same time, many scholars of the media demonstrate convincingly that the landscape of “information suppliers”, the “media” is concentrated and monopolistic to a degree never seen in history at least the history of the US. How can this be?

    The “fairness doctrine” was a logical response to the problem of concentration of financial control in radio and television stations regulated by the FCC before the advent of cable which the FCC only asserted jurisdiction over in 1969 out of its “ancillary” jurisdiction over airwave (or analog if you like) broadcasting. The “fairness doctrine” became an early casualty of the partisan wars we are experiencing today. Reagan’s personal opposition to the “fairness doctrine”, which led to the emasculation of the rules, was fundamental to his ideological conservatism, i.e. the delusion that “conservative ideas” have been suppressed somehow by the “liberal media”. Reagan could not accept that his crackpot ideas had been rejected by a fairly well informed public under the “fairness doctrine” and had concluded years before that “conservative ideology” was nothing more than a collection of crackpot ideas. There is nothing different today in conservative ideology that wasn’t rejected by the American public 60 years ago except a new generation of gullible “information consumers” who never heard it before and spun so well.

    The “fairness doctrine” was a sort of anti-defamation law that required broadcasters who allowed personal attacks on individuals to give victims of such attacks a right to respond. This doctrine forced broadcasters to avoid personal attacks emanating from their stations lest their valuable airtime and profits be consumed by giving away free airtime to endless responses by the victims. At least during “prime time.” Before Rush Limbaugh there was Joe Pyne, who in the 1960’s was assigned to “non-prime time”- the early morning hours with “professional” wrestling befitting a crank. Serious people ignored his likes.

    It was only when the “fairness doctrine” was abrogated and the successors to crackpots like Joe Pyne were given prime time airtime and cable time so that people thought these “broadcasters” represented serious ideas of serious people backed by money that they started to take them seriously. We’re not going to get over it until people have been disabused by harsh experience that conservative ideas and conservative ideology is still nothing more than crackpot jibberish which happens to make a few people rich.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/28/2017 - 07:33 am.

    “We have a president who casts many complicated policy matters in simplistic good-vs.-evil terms.” Maybe, but I am not sure it is worse than not knowing who is bad and who is good in the world… Remember that Buridan’s donkey who couldn’t make a decision?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/28/2017 - 01:13 pm.

      It ain’t what he doesn’t know that scares me….

      It’s what he’s absolutely sure of that just ain’t so.

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