Fairness, Faith and Political Discourse

A little bit after recording today’s ACROSS OUR WIDE MISSOURI this morning, we listened as C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” started taking calls about whether the FCC or Congress should re-impose the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters. On our morning newscasts, former Senator Danforth–who supported the Fairness Doctrine when he was in Washington–talked about today’s “terrible” state of political discourse.

The three issues began to form a kind of stew of diverse but sort of related ideas.

ACROSS OUR WIDE MISSOURI today focuses on the time when Missouri state government and the state supreme court held that we did not have freedom of religion in Missouri and that the state had the right to require ministers to take oaths of loyalty to the state.

All of this is against the background of several days of discussion (argument might be more appropriate) about whether the heated political rhetoric that flows from our radios and televisions led to the Tucson shootings.

It might or might not be worth noting that I was one of the leaders of a national organization that worked to get the Fairness Doctrine thrown out in 1987. I was a board member of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and was elected the chairman of the board for the first time that same year.

The Fairness Doctrine was created at a time when there were relatively few radio and television stations. By 1987, there were thousands. Cable television already was exposing viewers to dozens of channels and bringing a variety of voices into homes–although CNN was the only 24-hour cable news channel at the time. Nonetheless, the number of sources for information had grown immensely by then and the government’s argument that “scarcity” of information sources justified the doctrine was no longer valid.

Let me now jump-shift to today’s ACROSS OUR WIDE MISSOURI. I invite you to listen to it because it is a pretty scary story against today’s often-heard “Christian nation” proclamations, the frequently-expressed disdain for Muslims, and our national struggle to determine a proper policy for people who come here illegally to do chase the American dream. The overriding issue is rights and government’s interpretation of them and who gets to exercise them-and how then can exercise them.

After the Civil War, Missourians enacted a constitution requiring ministers and other professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) to take an oath that they had not been disloyal to the state during the war. People could not vote or hold office unless they took that oath. More than 75 ministers were arrested for preaching illegally. When they claimed their First Amendment Freedom of Religion was being violated by Missouri law, they were told that churches are nothing more than groups of citizens who share a common belief that they claim is divinely directed. Because they are citizens of Missouri, they are subject to the laws of the state. If the state demands their loyalty, they must agree or suffer consequences. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the oath. The U. S. Supreme Court eventually ruled the oath unconstitutional.

But for a time, right here in Missouri, our government told its citizens their First Amendment Freedom of Religion was subservient to state loyalty requirements. Before you could deliver a sermon, said the state, you had to prove your loyalty to Missouri. The freedom of religion establishment clause in the First Amendment meant

I tell this story every year on the program because this kind of mentality is never far beneath the surface of our society.

The Fairness Doctrine was a government policy that told those of us in broadcasting that we had to seek out opposing positions to editorials we ran (interestingly, more stations ran editorials in those days than do today) and do our best to balance our news stories with competing ideas.

There is nothing wrong with that as an ideal. There is everything wrong with it when government dictates what people must say–any people. That was one of the biggest arguments RTNDA made against the doctrine in the mid-1980s: it constituted government infringement on First Amendment Freedom of the Press, government dictating content. While the courts had held the First Amendment protected only the print press, we argued that broadcast journalists had the same public responsibilities as our print colleagues had and with those responsibilities comes freedom from government dictates.

In one case from 140 years ago, government defined freedom of religion and in its way limited what could be spoken from the pulpit. In a case from 25 years ago, government was defining freedom of the press and dictating what had to be said from an electronic pulpit.

Put simply: It is as repugnant for government to limit speech as it is to require it. We’re not going to get into a discussion of the tenor of talk radio. This discussion is more basic and is above that issue.

Senator Danforth is correct. Public political discourse today is terrible. Whether it is the heated language of the right or the left on our airwaves, or the childish behavior of members of the Missouri legislature who shout a challenge to the governor during a state of the state speech, drown out debate by another lawmaker by making Bronx cheer noises into the microphone, or telling a colleague across the legislative chamber to “shut up,” too much of our public discourse is built on disrespect, smears, and a cultivation of fear and distrust.

But does government in this free country have a right to require that it be different? Does government have the right to demand that we speak civilly to one another? Does government have the right to require you to consider more than one side of an issue?

The answer from this viewpoint is “no.” Not in a free country.

If Missourians are to have political discourse that appeals to our better angels rather than political discourse that seeks to manipulate, anger, and dictate, the discourse has to flow from a public that recognizes its broad responsibility for intelligent decision-making and insists that those in public places –legislatures and broadcast studios alike– meet those responsibilities.

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