In 1991 I won a literary prize. Materially, the award changed my life for the better; The Fabulous Wife and I used the money for the down payment on our home. But psychologically, the award threw me; it led me to believe I’d make a career out of writing, which didn’t happen. The one consolation was the friendship I forged with fellow prizewinner and Californian Janet Keller. I’d never had a real writer friend before.
Publishers rejected our next novels, so while casting about for projects, Janet and I hit on the idea of co-writing a book about talk radio. The Fairness Doctrine had been repealed by the Reagan administration in 1987. (For those too young to remember it, the Fairness Doctrine was a federal regulation requiring that broadcast media, in exchange for their use of publicly-owned airwaves, provide equal time to opposing political points of view.) Janet and I had both noticed the seemingly overnight transformation of talk radio, once a niche format, into a popular vehicle for fringe-right demagoguery. Appalled and intrigued, we started doing background research, which in my case included listening to Rush Limbaugh every day.
In the Fairness Doctrine era (and even beyond), radio talk show hosts opened with their take on a topic, then invited calls, most of which came from people who disagreed. The heat from the clash of opinions drove up ratings, or so it was supposed, and thus the more verbal combat the better. Limbaugh’s great innovation was to dispense with that model. There were no opposing opinions on his show. He didn’t interview liberal or even moderate guests. He took calls only from people who told him how right he was. Long before the term was coined, Limbaugh created a safe space for fearful, angry, and resentful authoritarians.
Janet and I didn’t get much beyond the research stage. We grew less intrigued and more appalled by our proposed subject. The clincher for me was the day Limbaugh said, “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals, leave enough around so we can have two on every campus. Living fossils, so we will never forget what these people stood for.”
Talk about cancel culture.
I was in my thirties and long accustomed to the wingnut right’s calumnies about liberals. But this was new: a casual (some would have you believe joking) endorsement of genocide. Writing a book is a grind. Writing a book about sociopathic monsters packaging their fantasies of mass murder as entertainment — to great success — would have overwhelmed the few psychological resources I had back then. Janet’s too.
I took two lessons from the experience. The first is that we need to restore the Fairness Doctrine, or a semblance of it. Long before the advent of social media, elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, along with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowed a few retrograde billionaires — Rupert Murdoch, the family controlling the Sinclair Broadcast Group, etc. — to build the right-wing media echo chamber that misinforms and enrages America’s sizable authoritarian minority. Confirmation bias is a universal risk. It’s in the public interest for everyone (you too, leftists!) to hear nuanced, rigorous opinions from other perspectives. Broadcast media make more than enough profit; for democracy’s sake, restoring political balance should again be part of their cost of doing business.
The second is that the extremists aren’t joking. Eliminationist rhetoric thrives in right-wing media (examples from other talk show hosts and guests can be found here) and is gaining expression in violent acts, the January 6 Capitol riot being the most recent. It’s time we started fighting back. Not with guns, as they’d so much prefer, nor with equally dehumanizing language, but with vigorous enforcement of the rule of law — and a lot more compassion for them than they have for us.