Between the Lines: The Day "New Media" Was Born

Everyone recognizes today we are in the midst of a media revolution. But has anyone considered when that revolution began? What was the opening salvo? What event triggered the amazing communications explosion we are witnessing?

I think I know the precise day the "New Media Revolution" was born — and, no, it was not the date Al Gore invented the Internet. Specifically, it was Aug. 4, 1987 — 20 years ago this Saturday. And I’ll bet there won’t be a commemoration anywhere in America or around the world — except maybe at my house.

What happened on that date? Something momentous. Something wonderful. Something that changed the world for the better. It was on that date the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine by a 4-0 vote, ruling "the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of (the Fairness Doctrine) restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters … (and) actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists."

It was a great day for freedom, liberty and open and lively political debate. But, of course, it did not occur in a political vacuum. Two months earlier, on June 19, another great day for the First Amendment, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a bi-partisan bill overwhelmingly approved in both the House and Senate that would have, for the first time, made the Fairness Doctrine a matter of law, not just the guideline of a regulatory agency. In doing so, Reagan said, "The framers of the First Amendment, confident that public debate would be freer and healthier without the kind of interference represented by the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’ chose to forbid such regulations in the clearest terms: ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’"

That took place 20 years ago. Do you remember what the world was like two decades ago? In 1987, three major broadcast networks presented the semi-official newscasts. You could choose between ABC, CBS and NBC. But there was really no choice at all. All three evening newscasts were remarkably similar — almost as if they were produced by the same team. And indeed it was. That team was called The New York Times. The front page was show prep for all three network newscasts.

Of course, you could choose to get your news from your local newspaper. But there was little competition there either. Even if you were one of the rare and fortunate consumers to have competing dailies from which to choose, the news was, again, remarkably similar — almost as if it were produced by the same team. And indeed it was. There was one main source of national and international news for those papers: the Associated Press. Some papers used supplemental news services such as … The New York Times.

There was no talk radio to speak of in 1987. The AM dial was moribund. Programmers dared not deal with controversial topics for fear they would have to provide government-mandated "balance" from opposing views. That made for bad programming and lots of red tape and expense. So radio stations simply avoided controversy — sticking to news, traffic, commercial programming, safe stuff. Pretty much all music had moved over to the FM dial. But something dramatic was right around the corner — a momentous development that would breathe new life into AM radio and the nation’s political debate as well.

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission from 1949 to 1987. It required radio and television stations to air all sides of important or controversial issues and give equal time to candidates running for office. It had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 in Red Lion v. FCC.

But in 1986, a federal appeals court recognized the obvious — that the Fairness Doctrine was not law and could be overturned without congressional approval.

How did Congress respond? Both houses passed a bill the next year that would have established the doctrine as the law of the land. It received 3-1 support in the House and 2-1 in the Senate. Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms both supported it. But President Reagan, God bless him, knew better. He vetoed it, and Congress did not override the veto.

This was not some spontaneous decision on his part. He had been thinking about it for a long time. He had worked in radio and television for much of his life. He had selected members of the FCC who were constitutionalists and freedom-minded people who detested the Fairness Doctrine. But even following the FCC’s momentous decision 20 years ago this Saturday, the Fairness Doctrine was not dead — not totally.

In 1989, the House of Representatives again easily passed a law incorporating the Fairness Doctrine. President George H.W. Bush threatened a veto, and the Senate backed down.

Notice how quickly the media landscape changed — and how dramatically. In 1988, Rush Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated radio talk show took to the airwaves. The impact was phenomenal. Whereas there were about 75 talk shows on radio stations across American in 1980, by 1999, there were more than 1,300.

Something else was triggered by the explosion of voices on talk radio — new voices on another medium. Within eight years of scrapping the Fairness Doctrine and seven years of the debut of Rush Limbaugh, another major media voice arose: Matt Drudge. Within two more years — an even decade since the death of the Fairness Doctrine — was born.

Not only did the explosion of new voices affect a broadcast medium once regulated by the Fairness Doctrine, its force carried outside to the Internet, to satellite radio and to cable TV, where FOX News Channel was born in 1996.

It was Ronald Reagan’s insightful, inspired stroke of the pen that touched off a media revolution that is far from over 20 years later. That’s why I dedicated my latest book, "Stop the Presses! The Inside Story of the New Media Revolution," to his memory. The New Media Revolution is his cultural godchild.