Sunday, November 7, 2010

What Really Happened to Keith Olbermann?

When I heard that liberal-leaning political commentator, Keith Olbermann, had been suspended by MSNBC for doing what that station pays him to normally do, namely, support a more left-leaning agenda, I was disgusted. He'd paid money to political campaigns without notifying his superiors first. I joined the hordes of protesters signing on every internet-based petition to get Keith back on the air, and it has apparently worked, since he'll be back on this Tuesday, which is a day late in my humble assessment. One thing is clear, however, Keith did violate an MSNBC policy of not contributing money to political candidates without prior notification. Now, this rule itself is silly, and is tantamount to having to ask Mommy permission before spending one's own allowance, but it is in place for an important historical reason. The more I explored this reason, the more I found that it has everything to do with the culture wars, and its current fight over the airwaves.

That's right. Freedom of speech is being lost over the airwaves due to the Culture War.

From the beginning of radio and television, there was a decided slant in favor of conservative viewpoint. Early hits on radio were Father Coughlin and Sister Aimee Semple MacPherson. Why, even the word, "broadcasting" references using radio to "sow the seed of God's Word." The FCC was instituted to be the airwaves' puritannical nanny. But then, in 1949, the FCC was persuaded that putting only one side of a controversial viewpoint on the air was detrimental to the public interest. And so the Fairness Doctrine was born. It was generally accepted at the time that news organizations should simply give the news, and leave the editorializing to local papers or other formats. These were the glory years of broadcasters with integrity. People like Walter Cronkite. People like Edward R. Murrow.

The Fairness Doctrine was finally challenged twenty years later in 1969, in a famous court case, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs. FCC. At issue was a book by Fred Cook, called 'Goldwater: Extremist of the Right.' Billy Hargis, host of a daily radio broadcast called "Christian Crusade" in WGCB, Red Lion, PA, blasted the book. Cook argued that he had a right, under the Fairness Doctrine, to respond to the personal attacks levied upon him. The Supreme Court agreed, and in an 8-0 vote, upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine.

In plain English, the Supreme Court said that WGCB could not do precisely what Fox News and numerous A.M. radio stations are doing today! Both sides had to be presented!

Well, this handcuffed the would-be conservative moguls of the world, and they resented it. But broadcast networks really didn't mind. They felt it was their duty to maintain integrity and balance, regardless of what the rule said. So they did so. But the perception slowly developed among people of a media bias towards liberalism. Edward Murrow dared to speak out against Joseph McCarthy. Walter Cronkite dared to voice opposition to the war in Vietnam. All media outlets seemed anti-Republican during the Watergate scandal. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives grumbled increasingly against the "liberal media."

This came to a head in 1987. Ronald Reagan, facing the end of his presidency, issued an Executive Order to the FCC to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, which it did in August of that year.

Let me translate that: No votes were cast! No public opinion culled! No bill was presented to Congress. We The People were NOT consulted! Instead, an act of sheer Imperialism by one, lone man, ended the legal enforcement of presenting both sides.

You'd think an actor would have appreciated sharing airtime.

Bush Sr. won election in 1988, and so it would be nearly five years before conservatives realized that the shackles had been removed from their wrists. Enraged over Bill Clinton's election, they began buying up greater control over the airwaves, beginning with that media format which had always been maintained by elder conservatives -- radio.

Slowly, a media format which had largely been local and balanced became one-sided and nationalized. Rush Limbaugh caught the apex of this wave, and surfed it well. The rise of the Internet made turning to national media outlets the only way to avoid losing money, and the rout was on.

And here, we must recognize why the Fairness Doctrine was so important: If left to sheer market forces, monopoly will ensue. This is true for media as it is for any other business. Private interests simply cannot buy a radio or television station without a shitload of money, and so whomever wins the consolidation race has the ability to shut out the dissenting view. Anti-trust laws break up monopolies, but the only anti-trust law ever in place for broadcast media, the Fairness Doctrine, was removed without any input from either you or me. Conservatives recognize this, and crave monopoly of their interests over the air. They hunger for it. They yearn for it. Clearchannel is close to achieving it.

This finally brings us around to Keith Olbermann again. We must remember that MSNBC wasn't always so left-leaning. Rather, they were dragged to the left as upper management kicked and screamed against becoming so. When they launched (a few months before Fox News), they attempted a slightly more right-leaning approach to go head to head with a more liberal CNN. Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham were regular contributers! They did live broadcasts of Don Imus in the morning! Fox News, gave a clearly more right-wing bias than MSNBC from the onset, and beat out MSNBC in winning the conservative viewership. At least, at first. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, MSNBC had higher ratings. Keith Olbermann, who at the time had just recently been brought over from ESPN to provide edgy color, left the network in disgust over the treatment of the news story. Former Carter speech writer Chris Matthews was brought in to MSNBC to replace the failing Phil Donohue, and Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter went their separate ways leaving MSNBC with a more liberal appearance, and the tug of war with Fox News was on. CNN assumed a new role in the balanced center. Air America Radio attempted to even the balance in the free radio market for liberal opinion, but radio was always a conservative old man's format, and liberal young people simply preferred Jon Stewart. But the career of Rachel Maddow was born of this, and added to MSNBC, drastically improving their ratings. They brought back Keith Olbermann from Fox Sports Net, and from 2007 on, received a boost in ratings with their more leftist approach, even though upper management was clearly less than comfortable with it. They simply couldn't ignore the left-leaning success during the 2008 presidential elections. Today, MSNBC has better internet ratings but lower cable TV ratings than Fox or CNN, and that's the way it appears it will stay.

So what's the deal with Keith Olbermann? Basically, the rule requiring news anchors to notify management before donating to political campaigns is a holdover from MSNBC's early years, when they hadn't been pushed to the left, and news commentators were meant to be impartial reporters rather than partial editorializers. That rule has now been made obsolete due to the evolution of the network's format over the years. Yet it seems that management is still resentful over having been dragged away from the center by the remnants of Air America and an ex-sportscaster. Having caught Keith Olbermann in a technicality, they yanked him from the air.

Here, finally is my ultimate point: Republicans yearned to "take back America" (as if they'd ever lost it). Now, in like manner, we need to take back the airwaves. Over and over again, conservative hacks bellyached over "The Inevitable Return Of The Fairness Doctrine" as a direct result of Obama's victory. They kept saying, over and over again (perhaps to convince themselves that it was true) that the Fairness Doctrine would rob them of free speech. (As opposed to robbing others of it, perhaps?) Two years later, it seems re-instating the Fairness Doctrine is simply not a priority in Barack's administration.

BUT IT SHOULD BE! Requiring both sides is simply NOT stifling of free speech! Not by any stretch of the imagination! We have between now and mid-January to persuade our exiting Democrat majority to do this one, last thing. Make no bones about it, we need the Fairness Doctrine put back before George Orwell's nightmare - that of a monopolized media - comes true!

It was taken away without our consent, and without representation (something our Founding Fathers got really pissed off about!). Let's put it back, WITH representation, and represent all sides of the politically controversial issues. Oh, Our Trophy President my reinstate it via Executive Order, just as Reagan took it away - but I'd rather see this done properly, through Congress, through We The People, who still, despite the recent election results, lean Democratic.

Eric

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