It All Started With Rush Limbaugh
By now the only way to prevent political violence is to exercise the rule of law to punish the demagogues who incite it
No single historical event can explain the rise and plunder of Donald Trump over the past seven years. But an unmistakable origin date is 1987 when the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine, unleashing the lies and vitriol of Rush Limbaugh upon the airwaves.
Limbaugh represents a paradigm shift in talk radio from rules-based decency and two-sidedness to demagoguery and conspiracy theory, all thanks to the spirit of deregulation and free speech absolutism of the late 1980s. Without this paradigm shift into unhinged, propagating untruths, there would have been no Donald Trump in the White House, no violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, and no Big Lie still poisoning American political discourse.
The Fairness Doctrine, introduced in 1949 after the expansion of radio and television news broadcasting over the preceding two decades, was a guardrail against partisan distortions of the truth, including character assassination. It required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints. Moreover, whenever a broadcaster made a personal attack on a person or group, the doctrine mandated that the station offer that person or group an opportunity to respond.
In 1969 the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Fairness Doctrine as compatible with the First Amendment in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC. Justice Byron White, in his opinion for the 8-0 majority, asserted that the federal license conveyed with it a “requirement that operation of the station be carried out in the public interest."
Then, on August 5, 1987, under pressure from conservative media, the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine on grounds that it compromised the free-speech rights of broadcast journalists.
On that day, too, the FCC legally licensed Rush Limbaugh to let loose his bellicose falsehoods into the public square and, with that grand opening, conservative political culture began its descent into the high-profile conspiracy theories that are the primary source of American political violence today.
By the time of his death in 2021, Limbaugh had spent thirty-three years on the air as the host of “The Rush Limbaugh Show.” At his peak he earned an annual salary of $84.5 million entertaining some 20 million weekly listeners. Through alternating jokes and hostile innuendo, he exhorted his listeners to deplore liberals as crooks and evildoers.
Conservative radio and television imitators took notice of Limbaugh, many following his path to extraordinary personal wealth and influence. One such imitator is Alex Jones. Ringing in dollars for lies, Jones falsely claimed for years that the parents of the children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook helped stage the massacre. Nine days ago a jury ordered him to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages for defamation in one of the cases.
So too did Donald Trump take notice of Limbaugh––and Limbaugh of Trump. The commentator defended Trump regularly during his two campaigns for president and four years in the White House. As payment in kind for escalating the bigotry that helped him to win the 2016 presidential election, Trump awarded Limbaugh the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
What can be done about this rot of profit-fueled demagoguery that commenced with Limbaugh and spread across the media and political landscape, culminating in the rise to power of demagogue-in-chief Donald Trump?
Obviously there’s no easy fix, but we are a nation of laws and litigation. If a single family from Newtown, Connecticut, can use the court system to punish Jones for his lies, there is hope.
We may or may not find the wisdom to restore something akin to the Fairness Doctrine to the nation’s airwaves and news feeds. But we must realize that U.S. presidents, other government officials, and radio and television announcers who spread lies that poison the minds of otherwise law-abiding citizens, rousing them to distrust of free and fair elections and violence against the Constitution, also deserve punishment.
We are not going to lose our precious right of freedom of speech––that’s a lot of drama––simply because American courts hold lying demagogues accountable for the harms they perpetrate against the United States. Carefully, deliberately, we must counter the political lies that drive Americans to fury and violence with the force of the rule of law.
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