Like him or not, Rush Limbaugh’s legacy is freedom of speech on America’s airwaves

Rush Limbaugh’s death on Wednesday brings to an end not only an era of conservative broadcasting that may never be matched, but also opens the door for Congress to try — again — to put an end to the genre that Limbaugh created.

From humble roots as a disc jockey in Western Pennsylvania, Rush ushered in a new era of broadcasting, taking advantage of a unanimous 1987 decision by the Reagan FCC that abolished the Fairness Doctrine, a 1949 rule that essentially prevented radio and television stations from airing programming that failed to represent opposing views.

Dennis Patrick, chairman of the commission that voted to repeal the doctrine, said, “We seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country’s inception.”

Congress tried more than once in the decades that followed to codify the Fairness Doctrine into law, but has failed to gain support. In the meantime, conservative talk radio has become more than a passing fancy. Three-hour blocks of airtime each day are devoted to conservative thought, with rock-star popularity bestowed on several, including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Ben Shapiro (whose column occasionally appears in The Sentinel).

Limbaugh’s personality and popularity helped all of them along.

Even if Congress chooses not to pursue another Fairness Doctrine, President Joe Biden’s FCC (the commission is part of the executive branch) could make another run at it, although any effort could be challenged in court.

For some reason, liberals tend to be terribly unpopular with their own opinion-based programming — remember Air America? — and unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Perhaps not coincidentally, they have tried to reinstate the doctrine through an act of Congress.

A new Fairness Doctrine would not only help Democrats stifle conservative communication, but could be used to just as easily to stop the networks from airing their never-ending love fest for liberal causes (although somehow there will surely be exemptions designed to favor the folks trying to rewrite the rules).

There are plenty of folks who are anything but conservative who admit readily that there is a bias in the world of broadcasting — and that it leans starkly to the left. Plenty of comedians have joked about the way liberals whine that Fox News tends to run conservative, because after all, the liberals don’t have their own network — well, except for ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS and NPR … you get the idea.

Fairness is something that is not guaranteed in the real world — surely your mom told you that once or twice.

The Fairness Doctrine was an attempt to control the discussion of controversial issues on the public airwaves (a term that applies to all over-the-air broadcasters, and is not the same as public radio or television). The goal was to make sure there was balance on issues of public importance, so that one side of an argument could not dominate the discussion. The controlling power was the station’s license, which the FCC could revoke if rules like this one were not followed.

The Fairness Doctrine followed an earlier FCC mandate prohibiting editorials by broadcasters — something that changed when the Fairness Doctrine was implemented — and was based on the concept that there were only a few broadcast licenses to divide among many applicants.

That idea seems almost quaint in the era of satellite and cable (neither of which are subject to the myriad FCC rules that control the operation of over-the-air stations).

If there is to be a Limbaugh legacy, it must be the freedom to broadcast that he so dearly cherished — and through his program, gifted to so many others.


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