Skip to main content
Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Opinion | Seeds for insurrection were planted 34 years ago with a rule change

The partisan divide: it escalated into a deadly insurrection at the Capitol, the second impeachment of Donald Trump, and the elevation of “Q” as an anonymous national political force.

Many attribute the rise of extremist politics to social media. It goes deeper than that. The roots of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol trace back to a government decision 34 years ago.

In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed the Fairness Doctrine, a rule which required broadcasters to present issues of public importance, and in doing so provide a discussion that was fair, balanced and honest. Repeal of the doctrine had long been a priority of conservative Republicans and especially the mostly conservative-leaning owners of broadcast stations. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, and a Reagan-appointed majority on the FCC, the 19-year-old mandate came to an end.

There were two direct impacts, both of which coarsened our public discourse: broadcasters no longer were under an obligation to cover/report local news; and the door was opened to one-sided talk-radio, with no obligation on the part of broadcasters to insure that the information on those programs was balanced or even factual.

Radio news and local broadcast content atrophied as station owners recognized the higher profit margins of non-stop recorded music and syndicated programs. In my youth, I was part of a 7-person local news staff at a small-market radio station. Even the smallest markets had multiple local news reporters. Today, all-news stations are only viable in the largest markets; in smaller markets the financial allure of eliminating staff expenses is irresistible. Many radio stations have no local news presence; many have little or no locally produced live programs of any type.

Enter the golden age of syndicated talk radio.

Within a year of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, Rush Limbaugh’s pioneering three hours of one-sided, fact-challenged talk was launched. Daniel Henninger wrote, in a Wall Street Journal editorial, "Ronald Reagan tore down this wall (the Fairness Doctrine) in 1987 ... and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination.”

It was our first modern information silo: daily programming designed to attract politically like-minded listeners to the exclusion of the rest of the population. Limbaugh’s success at drawing marketable ratings spawned hours of copycat programming.

The second pivotal point for the right-wing media machine was, ironically, the launch of what is now a target of right-wing vitriol, CNN.

CNN’s success led to the creation of Fox News, offering 24/7 news coverage promoting a decidedly conservative point of view.

It was the new free world of broadcasting. The content of cable television is regulation-free, comparable to newspapers rather than over-the-air broadcasters. Censorship of profanity, nudity and political opinion was driven only by acceptance of viewers and cable-system operators which could be monetized through advertisers. Facts, fairness and balance was no longer the ultimate objective but instead secondary to political advocacy. The Fox slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide" were perhaps the ultimate ironies in all of broadcasting.

The scene was set for MSNBC, a network now identified with liberal primetime talkers Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell, Joy Reid and Brian Williams.

To this day, the audiences of cable TV are a fraction of their tamer broadcast competitors. The combined prime-time audiences of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC in 2020 averaged fewer than 7 million viewers; the three nightly network news programs reach a combined 24 million viewers.

But the impact of cable news is amplified by the volume of programming and the absence of constraints regarding truth or fairness. Cable audiences are those most interested in public affairs: people most likely to be the politically active and, thanks to the media silos that feed them information, people whose perspective is warped to match their political predisposition.

By the time Barack Obama was elected President, the three silos of information were firmly entrenched. Add to the mix the “Wild West” unfiltered amplification of social media and the demise/downsizing of daily newspapers, and all the communication elements were aligned to create a climate for insurrection. Combine that with the shrinking of civics education in cash-strapped public schools and the most politically active masses are open to one-sided, silo-based information channels posing as traditional news coverage.

Welcome to our brave new world

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate Now