Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

Fair to Meddling

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The other day, President Trump watched a television program that makes fun of him and tweeted the following:

“Late Night host [sic] are dealing with the Democrats for their very ‘unfunny’ & repetitive material, always anti-Trump! Should we get Equal Time?”

No. To be specific, heck no.

I was in talk radio before the Fairness Doctrine was struck down, and it was like floating in a wading pool of congealed Velveeta. Anodyne local banter in the morning, syndicated pablum in the afternoon, some drive-time shows that tackled issues such as taxes (“Do you wait until the last day or file early?” — real hot-button stuff), then financial-advice shows into the night, featuring a guy who played solitaire while he did the show. You could hear him shuffling the cards.

In my first week on the air, I saw a story about a proposal to give condoms to prison inmates so they wouldn’t spread AIDS. Seemed like a good subject. AIDS was a constant topic of conversation in the ’80s, what with liberals insisting that the epidemic could be quelled if Ronald Reagan held a press conference and put a Trojan on a banana. I read the news story, opened the lines, and went to the break — during which the station’s program director burst in, florid, arms waving, and forbade any further discussion of the matter.

AIDS? Government-provided condoms? Too controversial. Drop it.

Huh. Well. I was young and brash, and didn’t like taking orders, so I cracked the mic, told everyone to hold on to something stable, and said I was risking FCC wrath right there but I did not care. Sometimes you have to broach the big issues and let the chips fall where they may. Okay, guys: Ginger or Mary Ann?

Well, then. Let’s go with the usual talk-radio fodder. Let’s see. Ahem.

Sunsets: Aren’t we tired of seeing them in the west? What if they were in the east? Would that change your opinion? Give us a call.

Ladybugs: Bugs, yes, but ladies? Some scientists say maybe not. After this break.

Did you see that TV show last night? Unfortunately, it was on a channel owned by this station’s competitor, so we can’t mention it, but you know what I mean. Wasn’t that funny? Ha. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about TV, though. So: Do you like the way your set smells when it warms up? That’s dust. Could be skin cells. We’ll take your calls after this break.

It’s time to talk politics, friends. Heck, it’s November, and the election is right around the corner. They say that those who like sausage and laws shouldn’t see either made, so I’m asking you straight: Have you ever seen sausage made? It’s fascinating, but not for the squeamish! Lines are open if you’ve been to a sausage factory.

Then, in 1987, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed to great gnashing of teeth and rending of garments because it had “Fairness” in the title. Now radio would be unfair. Now you could just say, “Communism is bad and has led to the death of untold millions,” and the station would not be obliged to find a host who said, “Well, actually, real Communism has never been tried, and you can’t make a giant, continent-spanning omelet of egalitarianism without breaking a few million eggs.”

One day after a show, my producer slid a cassette across the table. New guy, syndicated. The station was thinking of picking him up. He grinned: This guy redlined every dial on the board. This was what the medium was meant to be. Over the top. Full-throated. Dynamited every convention in the business. I listened, and my ears were pasted back: Could he say that? Could we air this?

Of course you know whom I’m talking about, because he fast became a household name. Paul Harvey.

Kidding. Rush, of course. The rise of Rush Limbaugh and the explosion of right-wing talk gave conservatives a voice and a medium, and in the lonely days before the Internet gave us a new and different kind of lonely days it was a boon to the movement.

You could say it also signaled the start of walled-off echo chambers, with each political faction listening only to voices that reinforced what they already believed. But not too many conservatives tuned in to NPR thinking, “Perhaps I’ll hear something that provides a nuanced critique of my fundamental beliefs! That would be instructive and salutary.” No. It brought people back to radio and made them feel connected to something larger.

A modern-day version of “equal time” would require . . . what? A right-wing Saturday Night Live on another channel, run by the Department of Comedy? Perhaps a chance for the president to appear right after a mocking skit and say, “Alec Baldwin. Not funny. Bad to his kid, I hear. Anyone remember that Shadow movie he made? Guy wanted to be the next Batman. Sad.”

Oh, it’s tempting: a Fairness-Doctrine Equal-Time law applied across the board, so that episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale — a dystopian story of female oppression — are countered with programs like Today in Saudi Arabia. The government could demand that every time someone on a TV show says, “Women are paid 76 cents for every dollar a man gets,” there’s a severe-weather-alert beep and a contrary opinion rolls across the bottom of the screen.

The president’s tweet was peevish personal pique, and the only thing more tiresome than knowing he watches late-night comics is realizing that he cares what they say. “He didn’t really mean it,” some might say. “Just stirring the pot.” Okay. Fairness-Doctrine-Revival Pot duly stirred.

Now dump it out and put it away.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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