Sunday, November 02, 2008

Father Coughlin, Free Speech, and The Fairness Doctrine

With two days to go before the election, I felt it was time to bubble this one back to the top. I do so now because one party in this election has made it a stated goal, if it wins the Presidency and gains fillibuster-proof control of the Senate, to reinstate the Orwellianly misnamed "Fairness Doctrine."

As someone who once held an FCC broadcaster's license and was required to learn the Fairness Doctrine as catechism, this disturbs me deeply. The Fairness Doctrine sounds innocuous enough. "Oh, it's just about making them give equal time to both sides."

Wrong! The Fairness Doctrine was always, from its inception, about suppressing domestic political dissent, and for 50 years it did so very effectively.

Allow me to backtrack a moment. I held an FCC broadcaster's license. What this means is that while the station's engineers held a different class of license, and the station owner held yet another kind of license (and I believe those requirements remain), I — and all other on-air personalities at the time — was required to have a license from the government simply in order to be allowed to speak live and on the air.

Of course, being a government license, it could be suspended or revoked at any time on the whim of a single government bureaucrat, and if it was suspended or revoked, I was off the air. After all, the engineer and the station owner didn't want to risk having their licenses suspended or revoked for allowing me to speak.

So imagine that. Having to get a license from the government in order to exercise your First Amendment rights, and having to live in constant fear of having it revoked every time you opened your mouth in front of a live microphone. That is what the so-called Fairness Doctrine is all about.

Hmm. I can already feel the smugness radiating from some of you. "Oh, that's just broadcast radio. Dinosaur media. If AM 1280 bites the dust we'll just switch to blogs and webcasts."

I hate to remind you, but this blog, and all other blogspot sites, exists solely by the grace of Google. Other blog and opinion sites are equally dependent on Yahoo, MSN, Amazon, or other ISPs and ASPs, and of course, that last mile to your home depends on your local telephone or cable company. All you need do is Google "Yahoo China dissent" or "Yahoo Europe hate speech" to find proof that, when push comes to shove on the question of free speech, the internet and telecommunications giants will stand up to government demands for "reasonable controls" and "objectionable content filters" with all the strength of a single-ply sheet of soggy Kleenex.

The excuse for this demand is already in place. A Federal court has already ruled that political speech on the internet falls under the purview of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Law, and online political commentaries count as political contributions in kind. The current administration has chosen not to instruct the Attorney General to enforce this ruling, but come January, all bets are off.

So while personally it would give me some satisfaction to see McCain hoist on the petard of McCain-Feingold (which I consider a wretchedly wrong-headed piece of ... legislation), in the end, I've decided I have far more to fear from the blueshirts of the Civilian National Security Corps and the self-proclaimed "truth squads." Faced with a choice between those who might be depended upon to defend the free speech rights even of Nazis, and those whose expressed intention is that they will outlaw free speech, I know which way I'm voting.

And now, to understand exactly how the Fairness Doctrine equates to suppressing domestic political dissent, please read and learn from the story of Father Charles Coughlin.

Original title: "Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and The Challenge of Free Speech"
First published: 2/21/07

TBR writes:
With a little seriousness, conservative thought and discussion was limited to a few intellectual papers by people like Buckley. It wasn't until 1987 when Reagan was able to do away with the "Fairness Doctrine" [that] people like Rush Limbaugh were able to take to the airwaves. Back then there were around 200 talk radio stations in the world and they were very carefully controlled by the FCC because they had to offer equal time to both sides of every issue during comparable time periods. It made it almost impossible to have the kind of discussion now common on talk radio [since] the left lost their stranglehold on what the population could hear/read/see. The ideas they presented [before 1987] didn't have to be defended because there was no outlet for conservative thought.

Look for the history of the fairness doctrine and you'll find the history of conservative thought over the last 50 years.
This gets into one of those really icky and uncomfortable areas, of the sort that makes thoughtful conservatives and libertarians squirm, or at least should. In the early days of the 20th century radio was a wide-open electronic frontier. Anyone who wanted to build a radio transmitter and get a broadcasting license could do so, basically by sending a postcard to the Commerce Department. What regulations did exist were aimed at making sure radio stations did not deliberately interfere with one another and that oceangoing ships kept a 24-hour watch in the radio room. (This latter was in direct response to the Titanic disaster.) In fact, the Radio Act of 1912 specifically states that the Government of the United States can only regulate interstate and international broadcasters, and disclaims any control over radio stations whose signals do not cross state lines.

By the mid-1920s this position was proving untenable, as more than 18,000 amateur, maritime, and commercial radio stations competed for space in the AM band. Congress responded by passing the Radio Act of 1927, which created the Federal Radio Commission and greatly tightened up the licensing rules, redefining the radio medium as a "public service" and establishing the principle that the unelected FRC's assessment of a broadcaster's service to the public interest outweighed the broadcaster's claim of First Amendment free-speech rights. Mark Goodman, at Mississippi State University, has written an interesting critique of the Radio Act of 1927 as an example of Progressive legislation. It's on the long side, but well worth reading for the insights it offers into early political correctness and the Progressive idea that the common folk need to be protected from hearing ideas that would only get them riled up. [Emphasis added: ~brb]

Not coincidentally, the Radio Act of 1927 also put thousands of small broadcasters out of business and made their bandwidth available to commercial interests. The Radio Act of 1927 also contains the first statement of the fairness doctrine, in Section 18:
SEC. 18. If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such broadcasting station, and the licensing authority shall make rules and regulations to carry this provision into effect: Provided, That such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast under the provisions of this paragraph. No obligation is hereby imposed upon any licensee to allow the use of its station by any such candidate.
Perhaps coincidentally, the Radio Act of 1927 roughly coincides with the rise to prominence of Father Charles Coughlin and Huey Long. Coughlin was a Catholic priest in Michigan whose weekly radio sermons were, for a time, the most widely listened to radio broadcasts in America, while Long was —

Look, it's difficult for me to be dispassionate about this, so I'll quit trying. If ever there was a man who was truly an American Hitler, it was Huey Long: a Jew-baiting populist from Louisiana who made his first fortune suing Standard Oil, rose to prominence through brilliant use of radio and propaganda, advocated radical redistribution of wealth, and ran the government of the State of Louisiana like a combination banana republic and protection racket. If you want to develop a sense of how truly crazy and dangerous the political situation in the United States was in the 1930s, go learn about Huey Long.

As for Father Coughlin: while I'm sure many on the left are tempted to take the cheap shot and compare him to Rush Limbaugh, it's a grossly unfair comparison. Coughlin started out broadcasting weekly sermons on CBS, but by the 1930s had built his own radio network and become a full-blown ranting, spittle-spewing, hate-filled political demagogue, who at his peak reached an audience of one-third of America. People still talk about Roosevelt's "fireside chats." Roosevelt's market share was peanuts, compared to Coughlin's.

A few weeks ago, I chanced across a collection of Coughlin's "radio sermons" in a used book store and picked it up and flipped through it. Never before have I felt the urge to buy a book simply to take it home and burn it.

I dislike the term "anti-Semitic." It's imprecise, and in Coughlin's case, inadequate. Not all Semitic peoples practice Judaism, not all Jews are of Semitic descent, and Coughlin was not merely anti-Jew, he was a demented, evil, foaming-at-the-mouth rabid Jew-hater. He blamed the Depression on "the international conspiracy of Jewish bankers," blamed the Russian Revolution on Jewish intellectuals, claimed that Marxism in Europe was a Jewish plot, and repeatedly and highly praised Mussolini and Hitler. In 1932 he supported Roosevelt for President, saying, "The New Deal is Christ's Deal," but by 1934 he'd become a liability and was telling his audiences that Roosevelt was merely a tool of Wall Street, international soviet communism, and Jewish bankers.

Perhaps coincidentally, in 1934 Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934, which replaced the unelected FRC with the considerably more powerful but equally unelected FCC; expanded Federal control over the electromagnetic spectrum; and added interstate telephone service to the list of "public services" to be regulated and managed in the public interest by the FCC. Which — again, perhaps coincidentally — meant that if you had, say, a private radio network, and depended on long-distance telephone lines to carry your weekly live broadcasts out to your member stations, well, this had to give you some pause.

By 1935 Coughlin was deeply involved in third-party politics, supporting first Huey Long's run for president on the Share The Wealth ticket, and then, after Long's assassination by "the Roosevelt gang, supported by the New York Jew machine,"1 William Lemke's United Party. By 1936 he was supporting the Christian Front, a group which according to the FBI was stockpiling weapons and explosives and planning to murder Jews, communists, and Congressmen, and then establish a Fascist dictatorship. By 1938 the Nazi government of Germany was hailing Coughlin as a hero of free speech and champion of the truth.

When Nazis are defending you, you have some serious issues.

Eventually the FCC stepped in, and by bureaucratic fiat created the requirement that all live, on-air radio personalities had to pass an FCC licensing examination before they could sit before the microphone. Coughlin naturally flunked, of course, so he switched to sending his show out on records. This battle of wills and wits went back and forth for a few years, as the FCC and NAB tried to find ways to shut him down and he continued to find ways around the rules, until eventually the Fairness Doctrine was fully formed, and Coughlin was off the air. By this time he was reduced to printing his own newsletter, and the Attorney General's office was reduced to arguing (successfully, as it turned out), that while the First Amendment protected a citizen's right to print whatever he wanted, the United States Post Office was under no obligation to deliver that person's mail.

In the end, Coughlin's bishop ordered him to give up politics and return to his duties as a parish priest in Detroit, and World War II put an end to openly expressing Fascist sympathies in the United States. As TBR points out, the rest of us were left with the Fairness Doctrine, which effectively stifled political debate for 50 years.

But we're also left with what should be a soul-searching question. Libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives are fond of saying, "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But in the context of someone like a Father Coughlin: do we really mean it?

Me? I'm with Jake and Elwood on this one.

1 Okay, that quote comes from Gerald L. K. Smith, the minister who presided at Long's funeral, and not from Coughlin, but it's consistent with Coughlin's usual tone and style.