By David Swanson
Judy Daubenmier spent 25 years as a reporter for the Associated Press and saw the field of news reporting sliding downhill. Now she works to reform our system of communications through the internet. Daubenmier is the author and editor of “Project Rewire: News Media from the Inside Out.” I talked to her about her work and her hopes for news reporting in the future.
Here’s the audio.
Swanson: This is David Swanson with Judy Daubenmier, the author and editor of Project Rewire. Judy, thanks for being here.
Daubenmier: No problem. Glad to be here.
Swanson: So, before we talk about the book, can we talk for a second about your background? For years you were a reporter for the Associated Press, is that right?
Daubenmier: That’s right, I started out in journalism, well that’s about the only thing I ever wanted to be, I guess, from about the time I was in fourth grade. And I majored in journalism, and I worked for newspapers in Iowa and then also the Associated Press in Iowa and Michigan both, and then had a career of about 25 years in journalism.
Swanson: Did you find it fulfilling work? Was it what you imagined growing into from your earliest ideas of journalism or was it disappointing in some ways?
Daubenmier: You know, the first twenty years or so were pretty good. You know, it was everything that I wanted to do. I loved it. I loved the writing, and being close to the news and what was happening, but, you know, in the early ’90s there started to be a change in journalism, I think, nationally, and I felt it in my career. There began to be more of an emphasis on trivial news, on light stories, non-serious type things. I remember when I was working for the Associated Press in Michigan in the early ’90s. Michigan was revamping its school finance system, the system of financing local schools, moving away from property taxes to sales tax and it was a change under discussion that was going to affect everybody in the state. If you had kids in public schools, if you bought something, if you owned property, whatever.
Daubenmier: And, you now, we, I worked out of the State House bureau and we were doing out best to cover that story, but about that time some local newspaper did a story on legislatures in a squabble over parking spaces, and we were told by our editors that that was the type of story they wanted to see more of, and the directive literally came down: “Find out where they park.” And it just sort of was demoralizing to me, that that was the priority. It wasn’t serious news, it wasn’t important changes in legislation, it was petty squabbles among legislators because that would be something everybody could understand. And, you know, it would be cute, and everybody would read it and talk about it, and that’s what we should be looking for. And that sort of shift was taking place, I think, nationally throughout journalism, and it sort of was the handwriting on the wall for me, an indication that I need to find something better to do with my time.
Swanson: Well, that certainly was my experience getting into journalism in the late ’90s. I apparently missed the good times and I got out very quickly.
Swanson: What, and then from there you retired and maybe you can fill in the gaps, but at some point you ended up helping out with a movie that a lot of people have seen that’s a wonderful critique of FOX news called
Daubenmier: That’s right. I left journalism and I went back to graduate school and went to the University of Michigan and got a degree in history and I got my PhD in history and now I work part time at the University of Michigan, not tenured faculty, I’m only adjunct or what they call lecturer faculty. And while I was doing that I really didn’t do anything in the way of political activity until the start of the Iraq war and I got involved with Moveon. And then Moveon decided to form a media corps, what they called a media corps, which would concentrate on watching the news media and reporting incidents of, you know, bias or whatever. And I volunteered for that and at the same time Robert Greenwald who was the producer of Outfoxed started recruiting people to watch FOX and tally incidents that they would grab video of. And he approached Moveon and asked for volunteers and I was among, you know, I don’t know, ten or twelve people or so who volunteered and stuck with it and the rest of us who stuck with it, there were eight of us, formed a blog called Newshounds. And we’re still in existence at www.newshounds.us, and we decided to just keep going after the movie came out and to continue to scrutinize FOX news and to try to pressure it to do legitimate news.
Swanson: And you are still doing it now at newshounds.com, right?
Swanson: What did you make of the apparent decision of the Democratic party not to go ahead with the debate run by and broadcast by FOX.
Daubenmier: Well, I think it was the very correct reversal of a decision that should never have been made in the first place. And of course, we did cooperate with Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films again in gathering video that was used to make the “FOX Attacks Obama” video which helped pressure the Democratic Party to drop FOX as the site for that debate. That’s going to be one of a series of videos – “FOX Attacks Obama,” “FOX Attacks Who Knows,” you know, whatever, but I could not understand, I was floored when I saw that they were going to have FOX News sponsor that debate. It just, after all the time they’d spent attacking Nancy Pelosi, by name, trashing her as a San Francisco liberal and everybody else in the party, that they would turn around and have them be a sponsor for that debate and participate in broadcasting it was just unfathomable to me! I couldn’t . . .
Swanson: Although, four years ago they did it, right? I mean, didn’t FOX sponsor Democratic primary debates last time around?
Daubenmier: Yes, they did.
Swanson: And this kind of uproar over it did not develop, to my memory.
Daubenmier: But you know, that was about that time that Outfoxed came out.
Swanson: Uh, huh.
Daubenmier: Outfoxed came out, when was it, July of ’04? June of ’04? Something like that?
Swanson: Somewhere around there, you can tell me, but do you think that Outfoxed and other educational campaigns and efforts have created enough awareness of what FOX news is that that is a large factor in why this occurred. I mean, I completely agree with you that it is absolutely insane for the Democratic Party to have anything to do with FOX News. It’s the right decision. What made the difference politically and in terms of the activist organizations that wasn’t there four years ago?
Daubenmier: Well, I think we have a lot that wasn’t there. You know, I think Outfoxed did educate a lot of people, and since then we’ve also had a couple of national conferences for media reform that have helped spotlight. We have not only NewsHounds, we also have MediaMatters and a number of media blogs that are watching, dogging not just FOX necessarily but all the media. And none of that was there four years ago. And so, in fact, when I started monitoring FOX news, I really didn’t understand the difference between FOX News and CNN and MSNBC.
Daubenmier: You know, I’d see stuff on a program, I’d see O’Reilly and think, “Oh, that’s horrible!” you know, but I didn’t understand the way it penetrated even their so-called “straight news” programs the way that it does. You know, most of the video in the FOX attacks video in which they are attacking Obama is not from people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. It’s from their morning news program called “FOX and Friends.” And, you know, it’s supposed to be a straight news program. They say, you know, “We have your news fair and balanced. It’s not opinion.”
Daubenmier: And, uh . . .
Swanson: Do more damage that way because people believe what they hear that way.
Daubenmier: Yeah, right. Exactly, people will. And so I think there is a great deal more awareness now than there was three or four years ago.
Swanson: Yeah. I agree. A friend of mine, Jeff Cohen, who appears frequently in Outfoxed, you know, had Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting up and running for many years, but there has been this proliferation of groups and activities of this sort in recent years that has just exploded. And I think the book that you’ve put together is a good example. I mean, you have some chapters that you’ve authored in “Project Rewire: Media from the Inside Out” analyzing what is going on with the media, and then you have this collection of short articles and blog posts. Is everything here taken from a blog or website?
Daubenmier: Yes, yes, all of them are blog pieces. And they are just really delightful to read. You know, the whole idea is when you read the internet, you know, you start researching a certain topic and pretty soon you click on a link here and there and you get way a-field, you know, from where you originally started. But what if you could sort of freeze the internet and look at everything on one topic, you know, and what would it look like? And that’s kind of what we tried to do here is gather together a lot of articles all on one topic, the topic being, you know, what I perceive to be the declining quality of news reporting in the last recent years and put them all together. And some of them deal with FOX, others of them deal with sort of the broader media climate and systemic changes that are influencing them. But, you know, I do talk about the FOX effect which, you know, is mentioned in Outfoxed, and I think that has been diminished, I really do, because of Outfoxed and all the other pressure. I think that copying FOX is no longer seen as a sure-fire path to ratings by the other news organizations.
Swanson: Well, there are definitely some at least partial changes that you can point to, you know. Keith Olberman has not been fired yet, as Phil Donohue was. There are some changes you can look at and yet, I’m sure you’re far from satisfied with the state of the media today.
Daubenmier: Yeah, that’s right. You know, FOX News is starting to have ratings problems. In ’06 they were down 26 percent in the key demographic of under 54 age group compared to 2005, and we’re happy to see that. But as far as the broader media, you know, I think that there has been a bit of a rebound from the low point between 1997 and about 2005, I’d say, 2004 or 2005. I think Katrina was a turning point when news organizations began to see that everything the Bush administration said couldn’t be taken at face value. I mean, they had the Bush administration telling them what a great job they were doing in New Orleans taking care of the hurricane aftermath, and yet they could see with their own eyes what was happening. And so they sort of made them a little more willing to challenge authority. And more recently I certainly think things like the McClatchy News Service coverage of the firing of the eight US attorneys is reason to hope that people are now more willing to challenge the Bush administration on pronouncements than they were before.
Swanson: And clearly in this lead up to a possible attack on Iran we are seeing a degree of skepticism that wasn’t there in the lead up to Iraq and it is possible that those lies and experiences like Katrina have been, and exposures of what FOX News is have been influences in that, but in the book you also suggest a major role, I think, for the internet. I want to just quote a couple of short passages. Just on page 3 of the book you suggest, “Perhaps progressive bloggers that aggressively critique and occasionally compete with the mainstream media will save us from a captive press by being for the press what the press is supposed to be for government, a watchdog that is vigilant, vigorous, and vociferous.”
And on page 35 you go on, “The more internet journalists dig into government reports for clues on the effects of government policy, contrast conflicting official statements at different points in time, or file Freedom of Information Act requests for information that has been withheld, the more traditional journalists will need to do the same to avoid being embarrassed by these new competitors.”
To what extent to you think that is up and running now?
Daubenmier: Well, I certainly think the critiquing part is very vigorous and, and I think another part of it is, uh, there is a blog article that’s in the collection by Jay Rosen about the internet serving as sort of a court of appeals in news judgment. Bloggers can keep the focus on a story that before would have been dismissed by the news media and that would have been the end of it. You know, court of appeals now is bloggers who can say, “Now wait a minute,” as many did with the Downing Street Memo, “Now wait a minute. There is something here you need to look at.” And I think that is an important function as well, to give a story exposure and sort of force the mainstream media to use its resources to investigate it. And as far as competing directly as reporters, we know that the Washington Post has lost two of its investigative reports now to the internet, just a few months ago, so that is starting to happen. And in the past we’ve seen, uh, I think it was Josh Marshall break the story of Strom Thurmond’s birthday party and the remarks that Trent Lott made, so it’s beginning to happen and I think it is going to happen more because the blogs are staying around and they’ve got some revenue sources now with Google ads and other advertising, Advertise Liberally and so forth, and so I think it is beginning to happen.
Swanson: You know, I like that you brought up the Downing Street Memo incident, because when friends of mine and I set up this website afterdowningstreet.org and started trying to generate activism about the Downing Street Memo, you know, one big assistance there was blogs, writing about it, analyzing it, and the other that I think is maybe missing a bit from Rosen’s and others’ analyses is radio. There are now progressive radio shows all over the country that were pushing that story for us. But then there was also in that case endless activism. Tens of thousands of phone calls and emails and protests in the lobby of the Washington Post and, you know, since that there have been several pieces of evidence that this war was based on lies that have been at least as powerful as the Downing Street Memo and they have been analyzed and written about at least as well by the blogs, but the activism hasn’t been there, I think because people are less hopeful that exposing the evidence will make any difference because we exposed the Downing Street Memo and nothing happened. But without that huge level of activism it seems you can have great analysis going on the blogs and it doesn’t make it into the corporate media.
Daubenmier: Right. And I think that the media, or that the blogs and the internet can help organize that sort of pressure. MediaMatters for example always includes information on how to contact news organizations . .
Daubenmier: . . . about a story. And on the FOX attacks websites, for example, we’re gathering information about the local advertisers on FOX news so that people could put in their zip code and find out who advertises locally on their local FOX news cable and pressure them. So the internet is a good way to mobilize that kind of thing. For example, the brouhaha over ABCs mocumentary The Path to 9/11. You know, there was a lot of phone calling and other activity around that, and I think the minimal changes that ABC agreed to make in that so-called documentary would not have occurred without those phone calls and without that activism that was made possible by internet networking.
Swanson: Yeah. You are very much an optimist. These are good signs for hope, and I’m uh, . . maybe it’s the war. I don’t know. I’m in a pessimistic mood. But, this book is full of signs for hope. There is a quote on the cover of the book from David Bender of Air America that says, “This book powerfully reminds us of what the old media has plainly forgotten, that truth is not a matter of opinion.” But I think that phrase can have a lot of meanings and it can suggest the desirability of being objective and position-less and free of all bias in the way that the corporate media pretends to be. And there is, early in the selections there is an article by John Nichols talking about the Dan Rather brouhaha with the forged or not necessarily verifiable documentation of Bush’s skipping out on his guard duty. And John Nichols points out that a couple of authors had done a tremendous, accurate, verified, documented job of reporting this story already, that CBS could have turned to Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. But he writes, “Perhaps the CBS executives thought that because Ivins and Dubose write with a point of view rather than feigning journalistic impartiality, they could not be trusted to get the straight story. That, of course, is the common bias of the elite broadcast media in the United States.”
Which raises the question: Should we be, should we aspire to achieving that reputation of impartiality or is it just as well or even maybe a good thing for media consumers to recognize that everybody’s got point of view, but some people can still be honest and accurate and others not?
Daubenmier: Well, I’m not ready to give up on an independent press. Maybe nonbiased or impartial isn’t exactly the right word. I think they need to be independent of all sources of power and independent of partisan politics. I think they should be independent of partisan politics. I don’t think we need to go back to, you know, in earlier in our history newspapers were partisan affiliated entities and I don’t think that that is good because I think, you know, truth is not a matter of opinion. We can strive for uncovering the truth.
Swanson: But Molly Ivins and Dubose are not affiliated with the Democratic Party or the Green Party or the Republican Party.
Swanson: Are they nonetheless outside the realm of ideal journalistic performance.
Daubenmier: I would, no, I wouldn’t think so at all. But, you know, they, Molly Ivins was basically a columnist, uh, and, you know, I think that’s fine. I think she was great. But, um . . .
Swanson: But a reporter is something different.
Daubenmier: Yeah. I think a reporter still should be something different. But that doesn’t mean a reporter can’t be sort of crusading, you know, vigorous, and challenging, and . . . You know, I think it is awfully hard for reporters to have a point of view because they become so jaded and cynical by covering people all the time. You know, familiarity breeds contempt. And I think that’s the occupational hazard of journalists, so I really don’t think that part of the journalist, it’s sort of a contradiction in terms because sooner or later they get disenchanted with the people they are covering no matter who they are. So I think what they need to be is willing to challenge those in authority, no matter what party they come from, and they should, you know, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The old Pulitzer model. That should be their goal, not promoting even necessarily one political point of view.
Swanson: The difficult thing to do impartially is decide which stories you are going to cover and which facts you are going to look into, and if you look at the more independent media outlets that are developing in this country and you look at the incredible explosion of great media criticism that is going on, it’s all about the big stories that are in the corporate media. It’s rarely, if ever, about the stories that don’t exist in the corporate media and maybe should. So that, for example, if you were taking your lead on what stories to write about from opinion polls of what the majority of Americans were interested in, you might cover issues that are completely unheard of in the mainstream media. I mean, if someone were to look at the polls and see that a majority of Americans want Bush impeached and were to write an article about impeachment because there are rallies all over the country about it and nothing about it is happening in Congress, that article would be a partisan, opinionated, agenda article, even if it was written in straight journalese, straight, balanced, fact reporting style, whereas an article about, you know, exactly what benchmarks Nancy Pelosi wants George Bush to meet and so on, which nobody is talking about outside the beltway, would be an objective article.
Daubenmier: Well, no, I think that somebody could write that article objectively, or independently. I think that is a legitimate story. Why, why is there a disconnect between what the polls are saying, what the public is saying, and local activism, and what is happening in Congress regarding impeachment. I mean, that deserves to be inquired into. So, uh, I think that is a result of more sort of timidity in corporate media rather than a desire to be sort of neutral. Because they ask the question in the polls.
Swanson: So, well . .
Daubenmier: They’re just not following up.
Swanson: Well, they don’t. There are topics that they, that they don’t ask about in polls and that’s one that they almost never, not since October, you know, do they ask in polls and then only Newsweek and nobody else.
What you get from reading this book is a sense of hope and possibilities for the internet to force us to a better communication system, but it’s hard to see the end results. Um, I mean, because we could conceive of, you know, surrendering to the fact that the television still gets the bulk of the eyeballs and put some real money into creating an honest and effective television network. Or are we looking at a future where blogs and video pieces on the internet merge and the web browser and the television set merge? Or is there an idea that, that the investigative reporting side of the blogs will build to such an extent that the other media have to take their lead from the blogosphere? I mean, what does the future look like that gets us to better, honest, democratic reporting?
Daubenmier: I think there is going to be a convergence of television and the internet in a lot of ways. As I understand it, with, the coming years we’re going to see the ability of every web page to be sort of a broadcast television and radio station on its own, the technology of YouTube and similar uploading video capabilities is going to be so widely available that it’s going to be easy to use your computer sort of like a television. And so that, I think that remains to be seen how that is going to play out. We are already seeing all the TV networks starting to put their video up on the web and that’s the first step towards that. Um, as for more investigative reporting, I think it would be a shame to give up the infrastructure that newspapers have developed to do investigative reporting. They need to figure out a way to use the internet and to make money from the internet to replace those hard-copy subscribers that they are losing, because they do have expertise, they have sources, they’ve got historical memory that we need to take advantage of if we can get them to, sort of, you know, recover their vigor of a few years back. So, I think it’s, it’s uncertain. I think we are just about at the verge of a big change, and there’s going to be more overlap between what TV looks like on the web, you know. The web is going to be more like TV, I think, in a lot of ways, but it will be more diverse. There won’t just be three networks and a few cable stations. There will be a lot of people out there, and competition to attract viewers will be won by those who do the best job of meeting needs as far as good reporting.
Swanson: I know some media activists, particularly within the labor movement, who have been sort of screaming for years now that, you know, every election cycle the labor movement alone dumps enough money in the form of advertising into the existing networks that it could have built a new network, a new television network, and so they are constantly, you know, for years and years now, pounding the doors of the union presidents saying, “Why don’t you come to your senses?” And I’m wondering if that idea is going to be perhaps outdated before the activists ever persuade the leadership to act on it. Do we perhaps, are we perhaps going to have better chances building through new converging technologies, as you mention?
Daubenmier: Yes, as long as we keep, you know, the internet free and open and we don’t let Congress succumb to the pressure . . .
Daubenmier: . . of, you know, sort of internet access. Keep that open.
Swanson: Yes. Good. I actually wrote one of the little articles in your book. Haven’t gotten my commission yet, but (laugh) . . . The article that I wrote was about Cindy Sheehan’s becoming a news story and the media suddenly focusing for a minute, really more than a minute, on the peace movement. And a couple of days ago, I sent a video to the media of a woman, a military mother, whose son has not yet been killed in Iraq being yelled at by Congressman David Obey.
Swanson: And in a very similar way, although I don’t think as big and it may never become as big, Tina Richards has become a national story and there are newspaper articles and she’s on all the TV and radio shows, and yet the substantive reporting that’s been needed on this war has yet to really materialize. The war is still with us. And, you know, what made Tina Richards’ concerns into a newspaper story was a dramatic video incident that was put all over the televisions in a similar way to Cindy Sheehan’s sitting outside the ranch was put all over the televisions. Is this the way we should be thinking about generating news stories, or is there a better way?
Daubenmier: Well, pictures matter. People matter. That’s always been a part of news, I think, and it’s still true. If you can put a human face on a story, it resonates with readers and viewers to much greater extent than a policy face. One of the problems with coverage of this war versus the war in Vietnam is that this war is more dangerous for journalists.
Daubenmier: And they cannot get out and provide pictures of, you know, people being blown up and so forth the way we saw in Vietnam. It’s just too dangerous. And I think that . . .
Swanson: Although there is video on the internet and on people’s televisions in a lot of other countries showing the blood and gore of the war in Iraq. I’m not sure the problem isn’t more that GE and Disney don’t really want to show it to us.
Daubenmier: That could be part of it. You know, I haven’t seen, you know, a lot of media pushback on not being able to photograph coffins or . . .
Daubenmier: . . . so, I’m sure that’s part of it.
Swanson: Well the collection you’ve put together in this book has a lot of focus on the war and it is absolutely terrific and I encourage everybody to get it. The book is called Project Rewire: New Media from the Inside Out. Is there anything else people should know who want to get involved in this issue?
Daubenmier: Uh, National Conference for Media Reform organized by FreePress is a great organization. Uh, they can help you learn how to monitor your own media locally because this is a local issue too. It’s not just a national issue. And other than that, the book is available on Amazon.com. And I think that’s about it. Covered everything.
Excerpt from “Project Rewired”
In 1985, media critic Neil Postman warned that because of television, Americans were in danger of “amusing ourselves to death.” In his book by that name, Postman warned that television was transforming everything into entertainment or show business. One measure of that is the proportion of fluff topics that make up the nightly newscasts on broadcast television. Between 1977 and June of 2001, the percent of stories related to celebrities, entertainment, and lifestyle topics rose from 6 percent of the total to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of stories related to government plunged from 37 percent in 1977 to 5 percent in June 2001. The disaster of 2001 began a slow reversal of those trends, so that by 2004, celebrity, entertainment, and lifestyle stories amounted to 7 percent of the total, while government coverage was back up to 27 percent.
This “dumbing down” of the news has brought with it an emphasis on certain types of stories—the disappearance of young, white females such as Natalee Holloway, the trial of celebrities such as Michael Jackson, and so on. Arianna Huffington counted how many news segments mentioned either Holloway or Jackson during an eight-week period in 2005 and compared that to the number that mentioned the “Downing Street Memo,” a memo from the British government that discussed Bush administration policy and U.S. intelligence prior to the war in Iraq. The totals—for six broadcast and cable channels—were 56 segments on the Downing Street Memo, 646 segments for Natalee Holloway, and 1,490 for Jackson’s trial. While news executives claim news on Holloway and Jackson are what people who watch these stations want, Huffington maintains that tens of millions of people are not watching any of these channels and must want something else, adding, “there are huge slices of audience a real news operation could go after.”
With television increasingly cowed by the right wing and content with its new “happy talk” formats, newspapers remained the logical source of watchdog journalism, but their ability to finance such projects depended on circulation, which was under pressure from television news. Newspapers held their own against television until 1970, when they were on the verge of a downward slide in circulation that would make it harder for them to pay for such investigative projects. The percentage of Americans reading newspapers began to drop much earlier—in the late 1940s—but the problem was masked by growth in the U.S. population, which kept circulation rising until 1970. At that point, newspaper circulation flattened out until 1990, when it began to actually decline. Between 1990 and 2002, circulation dropped at the rate of 1 percent every year. By 2002, 55 million newspapers were sold daily, compared to the 1970 peak of 62 million. Newspaper readership, as opposed to newspaper sales, also was declining rapidly. In 2004, 60 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they read a newspaper regularly, down 15 percentage points since the peak of 75 percent in 1992 and the lowest since Pew began the survey in 1990.
The 1990s were a watershed for television news as well. The three networks had had competition from CNN beginning in 1980, but even with (Richard Mellon Scaife’s organization) Accuracy in Media’s carping, millions of Americans still felt comfortable with hearing the news of the world every evening from one of the anchors of the Big Three networks: ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’s Dan Rather, or NBC’s Tom Brokaw. Although none of them ever earned the unofficial title of “most trusted man in America” that many viewers conferred on CBS’s Walter Cronkite, the trio of big anchors challenged each other but went unchallenged as a group from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. In times of crisis, most Americans turned to them for breaking news, explanations, behind-the-scene interviews, and in-depth analysis. The big anchors held Americans’ hands during disasters, such as the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, or the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. During such times, the anchors knit together the scraps of information from official sources, reporters in the field, and their own observations to try to make sense of unfolding events.
At times, each was subject to criticism, often from the right, for being too tough on the nation’s leaders. Jennings defended himself, for example, from charges that he was soft on the war on Iraq, saying, “This role is designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public.” Tom Brokaw viewed his job in part as an obligation to direct “the bright light of journalistic sunshine” on the wrongs in society, prompting some people to charge bias. “Look, I’ve been dealing with this myself since the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, when reporters were accused of having a liberal bias. The fact of the matter is, if I don’t establish a bond with the NBC News audience that is based on my credibility and my integrity, then I go out of business. We’ve been doing this for a long time. NBC Nightly News still has the largest single audience of any media outlet, print and electronic, in the news business. The simple test is that if people thought I had a bias, they wouldn’t watch me,” he said. Rather described his job—the job of any reporter—as that of trying to be “an honest broker of information” who is willing to ask tough questions, remains skeptical of those in power and tries to be accurate and fair, while admitting no one can do that 100 percent of the time. “The core of the practice of journalism has to be integrity,” he said.
Mid-way through the reign of the Big Three, the American media landscape changed in fundamental ways. AIM’s single-pronged attack on American media would have been of little effect had the Federal Communications Commission not dropped its rules requiring broadcasters to provide balanced programming. The fairness doctrine, as it was called, required equal time for opposing points of view in the programming of broadcast stations. The FCC based the doctrine on the philosophy that a broadcasting license was a public trust and its holder owed a duty to the public to provide balanced discussion of important issues. Broadcast journalists complained that the balancing requirement unduly constrained their First Amendment freedoms and kept them from reporting on controversial topics. Furthermore, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, the philosophy of deregulating all government-regulated industries and allowing the rules of the marketplace to function ruled in Washington. In 1987, the FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine. Federal courts upheld the commission’s decision.
The disappearance of the fairness doctrine opened the airwaves to a flood of new programming—political commentary, especially right-wing political commentary. In 1988, Rush Limbaugh took his flamboyant AM radio talk show into national syndication through media giant Clear Channel Communications. Freed from the responsibility of presenting a range of viewpoints, broadcast stations aired Limbaugh’s attacks on liberals and the “liberal media” without opportunity for rebuttal. The formula for conservative talk radio consisted of vigorous attacks that demonized liberal politicians and liberal ideas and undermined the credibility of mainstream media by labeling them liberal as well. Limbaugh indoctrinated his listeners with the belief that only he told the unvarnished truth and the media (of which he, in somewhat of a contradiction, denied being a part) was biased. Limbaugh’s attacks were designed to induce outrage in his listeners, to advance a conservative agenda, and to drive liberal ideas underground.