Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOW Home Page
Home
Politics & Economy
Science &
Health
Arts &
Culture
Society &
Community
Discussion
TV Schedule
Newsletter
For Educators
Archive
Topic Index
Search:
Media
12.17.04
Politics and Economy:
What Happened to Fairness?
More on This Story:
Congresswoman Slaughter and The MEDIA Act

For the nearly 20 years she has been in Congress, Louise Slaughter (D-NY) has fought for fairness on the airwaves. Her latest legislation on the topic is HR 4710, "The MEDIA Act," which would reinstate the fairness doctrine and ensure that broadcasters present discussions of conflicting views on issues of public importance. Read the transcript of a web exclusive conversation between Bill Moyers and Congresswoman Slaughter below. Also on the NOW site: find out more about the fairness doctrine and media consolidation.

Transcript

BILL MOYERS: You were elected in Congress in 1986.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: That was the year the fairness doctrine went down and you've been fighting ever since to resurrect it. Why?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: I have. And, you know, I was so committed to it and I kept doing bills. Because the airwaves belong to the people. I think we've good and sufficient examples now of what has happened to us with media consolidation — the fact that the information coming to us is controlled, the fact that at least half the people in the United States have no voice because they're not allowed in on talk radio.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me exactly what the fairness doctrine was.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Pretty much that you had an obligation to present two sides of an issue. There wasn't really an obligation to go out and hunt for somebody if something outrageous was said on a station that you owned, or television station. But if someone asked to come on to present an opposing view, they were allowed to do it. And the stations were obligated to do it. And most station owners that I've talked to have said it wasn't onerous. They didn't find it all that difficult.

BILL MOYERS: What happened to the fairness doctrine? It was in effect for years. In the early '80s the Federal Communications Commission decided to…

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Do away with it the grounds, on the grounds that they said it was not a law. It was just a policy. Congress then sprang into action and passed a law putting it into a law that…

BILL MOYERS: They overrode the FCC?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: They overrode the FCC. And I'll tell you that it was such an astonishing vote. I think it was three to one in the House, two to one in the Senate. Among the people voting for it were Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich and others.

BILL MOYERS: To keep the fairness doctrine.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: To keep the fairness doctrine and codify it into law. But President Reagan vetoed it. And I remember my party was in charge at the time, the Democratic party. And I went to the leadership. And I said, "This is outrageous. We've got to try to override that veto."

And they would not. They did not make any attempt despite the overwhelming vote in both houses to codify the fairness doctrine. They refused to try to override that veto. And we tried again in about 1993, I think. But it didn't go anywhere.

And throughout all this time, I was also sponsoring a piece of legislation to require the broadcasters using our airwaves to give a small box of time to the challenger and the incumbent free. And they'd break it up into 60 seconds, whatever. It wouldn't bore people.

But the candidate had to sit as you and I are sitting and talk to the camera. And we wouldn't have all these voice-overs. And I tried that one for six years and found out a few years ago that the broadcasters spent $11 million to kill that one amendment.

BILL MOYERS: Talk to me about the power of the broadcasters.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Overwhelming. Overwhelming.

We had in 2002, Senator Torricelli [of NJ] was able to pass an amendment in the Senate that said that all broadcast media — this was in relationship to political campaigning — so advertising, that they had to give us the lowest commercial rate and couldn't put us on at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, right. It was to comply with law that was already on the books. And [Torricelli's amendment] passed, I think, 98 to nothing.

When we brought the Torricelli amendment over to the House and I managed the bill, we couldn't pass it because the broadcasters had had time between the Senate and the House [votes] to lobby against it. And we lost by two-thirds. One-third of the House of Representatives would stand up and say, "Yes, we have to comply with a law that's on our books."

BILL MOYERS: So when the fairness doctrine went down in 1986, that was the first year you came to Congress, what was the consequence of it? What happened as a result?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: AM radio rose. It wasn't even gradual, Bill. I mean, almost immediately. And I should point out to you that when we tried to reinstate [the fairness doctrine] again in '93, one of the reasons we couldn't was that Rush Limbaugh had organized this massive uprising against it, calling it "The Hush Rush Law." Which again said that while Rush can speak and anybody that he wants to can speak on those stations, the rest of us can't. But he aroused his listeners so that they contacted their members of Congress and killed the bill, and that's not the first time we've seen that.

I don't know if you remember, but I believe it was Massachusetts I think where they were doing seat belt law? And talk radio was against it and killed that bill. I mean we've seen this before.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you know some serious people, including some liberals have said that one reason Rush Limbaugh has succeeded is because he is good entertainment.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Exactly. He doesn't make any pretense of being a news person or even telling you the truth. He says he's an entertainer.

BILL MOYERS: And you're saying that kind of discourse is dominating America right now.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Dominating America and a waste of good broadcast time and a waste of our airwaves.

BILL MOYERS: Not to the people who agree with him.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, they don't hear anything else. Why would they disagree with him?

BILL MOYERS: But today, you don't have to just listen to one radio. You've got a choice of radio stations. You've got the internet. You've got the magazines. You've got how many? Five hundred channels, they say?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Yes. But we don't have all those people lining up to discuss what's going on, what's happening in our country. Frankly, I want every American, every single one, to understand what's happened here. We were able to stop some consolidation last year. But the FCC was intent on simply allowing three or four corporations to own it all.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that every day in America according to our research, on the 45 top rated talk radio stations, there are 310 hours of conservative talk and only five hours of talk from the other side of the aisle? Now the nation is evenly divided politically, but on talk radio…

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Actually more than that. There was a poll done that showed that 70 percent of Americans — conservatives, liberals, whatever stride — said they're not being told the truth anymore. But what upsets me frankly, is I'm surprised it's five percent. And I think that's because one radio station in my district was converted to Air America…

BILL MOYERS: To the liberal network.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: …to sort of keep us quiet. It says to me that that's why senior citizens don't understand now that social security is going to be privatized. And that they don't understand what the Medicare bill that was passed intends to do, and that's get rid of Medicare and push everybody on HMO by 2010. Because we have no way in the world to get this information out to people. And it is a shame.

BILL MOYERS: You're saying that the removal of the fairness doctrine and the concentration of power in a handful of major media companies have led to a one-side political discourse?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Oh, I believe it. Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Is somebody going to say, "Is this just a question of a Democrat who feels she's not getting her message out and she's mad?"

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: No. It isn't. I mean I get reelected, I've done extremely well in my district because people appreciate that I fight for things. I think all Americans would feel the same way I do exactly if we just had the ability to tell them. Reinstating the fairness doctrine would make a major difference in this country.

BILL MOYERS: What does your bill before Congress propose?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: So far, it just reinstates [the fairness doctrine.] But you know, I've been giving some thought to it this week. I will in no way do anything to hurt the first amendment. I'd die for it. I certainly don't want to do anything about censorship or anything. I simply want equal time. As simple as we can make it is that we simply want to reinstate it. That people have an opportunity to give them an opposing view, that you can't own a radio station in the United States that simply gives one side all day long.

BILL MOYERS: So you're primarily concerned about radio?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: No. I'm concerned about television as well. But radio is probably where we're going to get the biggest problems in trying to get this done, because people have the radio on all day. They listen to it. And I think that says a lot. I think we can see that reflected in what people are thinking and feeling today.

BILL MOYERS: You know people say well, "Yes, it is in principle true that the government, the people passed to the television and radio companies the right to use the airwaves, the public spectrum." But cable's a different baby altogether. Cable is unregulated.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Right.

BILL MOYERS: Are you proposing the fairness doctrine for Fox News or MSNBC?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: You bet.

BILL MOYERS: You are?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Yes. Fairness isn't going to hurt anybody. I just can't imagine these people who want to fight against fairness. And I noticed that just recently, I believe President Clinton said that the 1996 Telecommunications Bill was probably one of his worst mistakes?

BILL MOYERS: He signed it?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: You see this is what's happening out there. People I think are really saying, "Wait a minute. This has gone way too far."

BILL MOYERS: Well you know, someone would say that you've been elected to Congress repeatedly since 1986. So clearly the loss of the fairness doctrine didn't prevent you…

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Didn't impede me. No. Because I'm able to buy advertising. In today's world, a candidate who is not on television is not real. Nobody knows about them. They basically don't exist.

BILL MOYERS: People contribute money for you to pay for advertising.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: And that's the way it goes. Back in the old days, you know we used to have door hangers, billboards, and all those kind of things. But mostly now, with most candidates for Congress they simply raise money for television and hand it over.

BILL MOYERS: When your constituents in your district listen to talk radio, what are they hearing? Is there a lot of right wing talk radio in your radio?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Oh yes, absolutely. Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, the whole nine yards.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that Rush Limbaugh…

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Rush Limbaugh has every right to be on there. But that radio station has to give equal time to another point of view.

BILL MOYERS: If you get the fairness doctrine back, Rush Limbaugh is still going to be on the air and Sean Hannity's going to still be on the air?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, of course. I mean…

BILL MOYERS: What will be the difference?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: The difference would be that there would have to be somebody there saying, "Come in." The fact is, what we're talking about with fairness is that a radio station, television station that has opinion, has to give an opposing opinion a chance. And I think that that's terribly important to us. It's not asking much. And we're not as informed as we ought to be.

BILL MOYERS: Now we have the internet. Anybody can say what they will, when they want to say it… And we know that a lot of these bloggers that we know about on the internet that get picked up and circulated to major media. So there is an antidote now…

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: There is an antidote now, except everybody is not on the internet. Everybody has no access to see what they're talking about. I don't think there's any question that MoveOn when they organized against further consolidation of media, and had over two million e-mails going into the FCC, made a big impression.

I think the Sinclair thing is also somewhat resolved. I have to say at the same time, I think that the internet had an effect on that.

BILL MOYERS: Some conservative writers have said that, "Look, Congresswoman, the market worked. When Sinclair tried to insert his politics views into a commercial field, the public reacted, the bloggers reacted, the opposition reacted. And Sinclair changed its policy."

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well we didn't have that a couple, three years ago. But I'm not sure we can just leave it to that. That we can hope that the bloggers will be enough to counteract it. The fact that Sinclair wanted to do it in the first place, indicates that they had no restrictions on them of any sort, and apparently that they thought it was there to use as they saw fit.

It's a little difficult once the owners of Sinclair have already declared their preference and given huge amounts of money to one party to even when they would do this, not to say this is one step forward, further of what they want to do to support their candidate.

But now people are saying, "Well wait a minute. We shouldn't just hear from one side of this issue. There must be some reason those people in Congress are doing this. We would like to hear from them or their supporters or people who agree with them to see what is it. What's going on here? What is it that we need to know about this legislation?" Just hearing it from one side is not sufficient. In fact, it's dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: You're saying that your fairness doctrine would simply mean that if a radio station or television station offers one position, like Rush Limbaugh, on a bill or a campaign of President or an election, they should also have people who disagree with Rush Limbaugh?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Absolutely. They should not be putting their own bias and their own feelings out on their radio station because they think they own it. It has to be done as a public trust and in the public interest.

BILL MOYERS: But the first amendment guarantees the right of free press.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: If they owned the airwaves, then I'd probably have no complaint. But they don't. It belongs to us. Part of our democracy. It's part of the ability that we have to contact our citizens. It's a way that we want our children to grow up with some understanding of what this country is about and what it's based on and what their choices are.

BILL MOYERS: You've been up against the big broadcasters before.

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: I have.

BILL MOYERS: So what makes you think you can win now?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: So many things are happening in the country. I have a grandson that's a sophomore at George Washington. He asked me to come and speak to the Young Democrats. I've been doing that for years. It was always five kids in a room.

So I called him on the way and said, "Where's this held?" He said, "Grand Ballroom." And I thought, "Oh, that's gonna look good." Over 300 students, standing room. I've never seen that. I've been in this business a long time.

There is a new sense in this country. A porter this morning at the Rochester airport said to me, "Everybody's gotta get out." He started ticking them off. "Senior citizens, all the minorities, gays, everybody, this is it. The country is really up for grabs here." And I think that part of it, and the reason we are in this position that we are in, and perhaps part of the reason the polls are the way they are, are what people hear.

They may hear whatever they please and whatever they choose. And of course they always have the right to turn it off. But that's not good enough either. The fact is that they need the responsibility of the people who are licensed to use our airwaves judiciously and responsibly to call them to account if they don't.

BILL MOYERS: Who decides what fairness is? What is fair? What's the truth?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, in political circles, it's the equal time piece where if one candidate gets to say something on the air, equal time, no matter what it is, is given to the opponent, again if asked.

But fairness can't be that difficult. Surely, we have evolved to the stage here in this century that we can understand some sort of balance, some sort of sense. To me it is a feeling that my country is spilling out hatred and lies on many, many of these stations to people who hear nothing but that, who never believe or hear any countervailing opinion. I think this is one of the most dangerous things in the world, and it actually cuts out a point of view of half of America. And anything that we own as Americans, as a government, like the radio and television waves, should not be used in that way.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the major broadcasters are against fairness?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Sure! It was their lobbyists that killed the little bill I had on giving opponents a little bit of time on free television. Yes, I'm saying that.

They won't come out and say it themselves. They don't have to. They hire a lobbying firm in Washington that will spend you know, $11 million for that one amendment that I had.

Unfortunately for us campaigns coincide with football season, and it kind of sort of makes it a little hard sometimes for because that time goes at such an extraordinarily high commercial rate to let us in at a low one.

BILL MOYERS: You raised Sinclair. Did the broadcast of that controversial documentary critical of Kerry, STOLEN HONOR, did that really matter? I mean throughout the Presidential campaign, there were newspaper editorials, there were cable channels covering the campaign. There was the Internet. And in the end, what difference does it make that a company like Sinclair shows a film criticizing Kerry?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Well, let me tell you why it matters. One of the things that I'm distressed about, and I am a true patriot, is that I think what they've done with this film and others, they have called into question the medals won by every soldier, sailor in this country.

When you can slime three Vietnam heroes in four years and you can question a man's Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts and the military sits there… The Navy finally quietly on the hush said, "Those medals were deserved." You know, it was a terrible thing that's been done to our heroes. It's an awful thing that they would do this to him, in order to keep him from being the President of the United States when it's something that is based on falsehood. This is what I'm talking about. To spew this out all day long based on untruths is awful. I mean I'm glad we've got these fact-checkers out there. But they have not checked those ads very well.

How in the world can we say we are exporting democracy all over the world and we don't have it here at home?

BILL MOYERS: You think that stations, radio and television that are licensed should be required to offer an alternative. Would you feel this way if Rush Limbaugh were a Democrat, a liberal?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Yes, I would. Yes, I would. I have no question about that. I think it's just so important, because I'm not sure Americans have a chance to know what's going on. Now, I know the news comes so fast and furiously. But I go out and I make speeches, and I always make it a point to really, "Let me tell you what's going on. Let me tell you what's in Washington, what you're not hearing."

People are uniformly stunned. They can't believe. They couldn't believe that Medicare bill. And that the Democrats were shut out of the room, or that Charlie Rangel and the Democrats in the Ways and Means Committee were gonna be arrested by the Capitol police for using the Ways and Means Library. I mean, this is outrageous. We'll never put a stop to this kind of action, unless people know it.

BILL MOYERS: Where were the journalists?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Where were they? Where were they? I think Washington is covered very poorly. I've got a couple newspapers that I'd walk 100 miles to get. But for the most part, I think, as I said, they take it off of the wires.

BILL MOYERS: You're saying that the press didn't cover these stories and that talk radio skewed the issue?

LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Talk radio didn't want to mention it. I bet you that nobody's ever heard Rush Limbaugh say anything about Tom DeLay and what he did and his ethics problems. He's not gonna talk about that. But should America know or not that the Majority Leader, the Majority Leader has turned the whole Congress upside down and that what Americans learned on how a bill is passed has no relationship at all to what's going on in Washington now. I think America wants to know that. I want them to.

Related Stories:

about feedback [an error occurred while processing this directive] pledge © Public Affairs Television. All rights reserved.
go to the full archive