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The Reagan Policy Decision that Fractured Classic Media

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Opinion by Alexandra Wilson. This piece is part of Digital Hate, a series by Alexandra Wilson exploring the rise of right-wing extremism online.

In 1987, the Reagan administration abolished a 1949 U.S. communications policy known as the Fairness Doctrine, which “required licensed radio and television broadcasters to present fair and balanced coverage of controversial issues of interest to their communities'' [1][2]. Conservatives saw the Fairness Doctrine as an affront to their principles of small government and a mechanism used by the Left to silence strong conservative voices in the media [1]. Following Reagan’s policy reversal, strident conservative voices like Bill O’Reilly and Bob Grant emerged as divisive figures in U.S. media, polarizing the landscape in new and dangerous ways [1][3]. Rush Limbaugh exemplified this rise of a new brand of conservative commentators, who, free from content moderation, built a massive following.

The Rush Limbaugh Show first aired on the radio in 1988 and quickly attracted a large audience of listeners by tapping into what Nixon referred to as the ‘silent majority’—those “Conservative voters who do not participate in the public discourse” yet hold the view that Democrats and the establishment are aligned against them and their values [4][1]. While the exact number of listeners is unavailable, with estimates ranging from 30 to 14 million, the Rush Limbaugh Show was, and still is, acknowledged as one of the most popular radio talk shows in American history [5]. The three-hour daily show was broadcast on over 600 U.S.-based radio stations, 400 U.S. military stations, and other stations internationally, giving Limbaugh an incredibly wide reach [5].

The show came to fundamentally change the content of radio and news reporting [1). It was one of the premier shows that turned politics into a form of entertainment and “liberal-bashing” [1]. The show popularized terms like ‘feminazi’ and normalized jokes about those dying during the AIDS epidemic, language that left the audience either aghast or exhilarated, a perfect recipe for ratings [1]. People are psychologically attracted to negative, hateful news—a phenomenon known as the negativity bias. A recent study on COVID-19 coverage in the U.S. found that national media was disproportionately negative, making the nation an outlier [6]. One expert argues that the phenomenon is exacerbated in the U.S. because of the reliance on consumer demand and lack of regulatory oversight” [6]. This, however, is not to say that negativity bias does not exist elsewhere. Globally, people are still more likely to click on or listen to negative piece of information, whether that be the news regarding the most recent natural disaster or listening to someone be blatantly racist on air, than they are a positive one [7].

Inspired by Limbaugh's success, other conservative media outlets and personalities began to replicate the outrageous style of his show. In 1993, Bill O’Reilly is quoted as saying “I’m not sure where the business is going…. But my gut says it’s going the direction of Rush, and, man, I’m going to be there” [3]. As a result, we now have media personalities like Tucker Carlson, who took over Bill O’Reilly’s slot in 2017, peddling racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant rhetoric to the largest audience in cable news globally without fear of reprimand [8][9][10][11]. And while media personalities like Limbaugh and Carlson know that the programs that they produce are for entertainment purposes, many of their listeners see them as trusted news sources [3][12]. Fox News won a court case in a defamation suit against Carlson by arguing that “Carlson is, first and foremost, not a provider of ‘the news’ as we know it, or ‘facts’ as we commonly understand them, and his audience knows this” [12][13]. However, Fox News does not label Carlson’s segment as a comedy or parody, referring to Carlson instead as a “veteran political journalist” whose show is “an ‘hour of spirited debate and powerful reporting’” [12][14]. U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil took issue with this approach, writing that the “'general tenor' of the show should… inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not 'stating actual facts' about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'non-literal commentary.' [and]… that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism' about the statement he makes” [15].

The polarization of the traditional media landscape has also spread to social media. Brandon Rigato, a PhD candidate in Communication Studies at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, told KPR about some of the links he has noticed in his research.

“I do social networks for my dissertation, and you'll see very clear instances of those media ecosystems being connected to these groups…. For instance, a group called Act for America and Act for Canada...has established connections with Pamela Geller, Brigitte Gabriel, Sean Hannity, Huckabee, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Bill O'Reilly.”

So, why should we care? If this is just entertainment or parody, why does it matter if people like watching it and sharing it on social media? Well, as mentioned above, many nightly viewers of Carlson’s show believe the vile hatred he spews, not seeing the show as parody but rather as a confirmation of extremist ideology. The right-wing, neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, the white supremacist forum Stormfront, and the former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke, have all stated their support for Carlson’s “weaponized rhetoric,” which has helped to mainstream, legitimize, and spread their hateful views [16][9].

In December 2020, security officials and researchers warned that “the widespread embrace of conspiracy and disinformation [by the media and subsequently the people] amounts to a "mass radicalization" of Americans, and increases the risk of right-wing violence” [17]. This was not a baseless warning, as the events of January 6, 2021 so dramatically demonstrated. During the 2020 American Election, right wing personalities on Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax alleged that “Dominion, the company whose voting machines were actually used in some swing states like Georgia, was using Smartmatic software, [to flip] votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden” [18]. However, Smartmatic had no business in Georgia. In fact, they had no business in any of the swing states during the 2020 presidential election; this was blatant misinformation [18]. As a result, Smartmatic filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News stating in its 276-page complaint that “‘the story turned neighbor against neighbor’… [leading] ‘a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol’” [19]. Insurrectionist Anthony Antonio’s lawyer even went so far as to claim blame his clients’ actions on ‘Foxitis’ and ‘Foxmania,’ stating that “Antonio's steady diet of Fox misinformation in the weeks after the 2020 election convinced him that the election was stolen,” resulting in his storming of the capital [20].

Thus, while these news organizations may very well argue that media personalities such as Tucker Carlson are not providers “of ‘the news’ as we know it, or ‘facts’ as we commonly understand them,” their posturing as credible journalists has polarized the media landscape in ways that continue to dangerously impact public perceptions and behavior [12][15].

  1. Barbaro, M., “The Legacy of Rush Limbaugh,” The Daily, February 22, 2021.

  2. Stefon, M., “Fairness Doctrine,” Britannica, March 17, 2020.

  3. Kruse, K., & Zelizer, J. “How policy decisions spawned today’s hyperpolarized media,” The Washington Post, January 17, 2019.

  4. History Editors., “President Nixon calls on the ‘silent majority,’” History, October 30, 2020.

  5. Farhi, P. “No Rush to Measure Limbaugh’s Ratings,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2009.

  6. Leonhardt, D,. “Covid coverage by the U.S. national media is an outlier, a study finds,” The New York Times, March 24, 2021.

  7. Stafford, T. “Psychology: Why bad news dominates the headlines,” BBC, July 28, 2014.

  8. Maza, C., “Why White Supremacists Love Tucker Carlson,” Vox, July 21, 2017.

  9. Gertz, M., “Fox News’ New Prime-Time Host Tucker Carlson is Beloved by Neo-Nazis and Misogynists,” MediaMatters, January 5, 2017.

  10. Rubin, J., “Republicans Bear Some Responsibility for Right-Wing Terrorism,” The Washington Post, April 13, 2021.

  11. Gerson, M., “Tucker Carlson Shows What Mass-Marketed Racism Looks Like,” The Washington Post, April 12, 2021.

  12. Hannon, E., “Judge Rules Tucker Carleton Is Not a Credible Source of News,” Stale, September, 25, 2020.

  13. Sheth, S., “Fox News won a court case by ‘persuasively’ arguing that no ‘reasonable viewer’ takes Tucker Carlson seriously,” Insider, September 24, 2020.

  14. “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox News, n.d.

  15. Folkenflik, D., “You Literally Can't Believe The Facts Tucker Carlson Tells You. So Say Fox's Lawyers,” NPR, September 29, 2020.

  16. Peters, J., “Rush Limbaugh’s Legacy of Venom: As Trump Rose, ‘It All Sounded Familiar,’” The New York Times, February 17, 2020.

  17. Allam, H., “Right-Wing Embrace of Conspiracy Is ‘Mass Radicalization,’ Experts Warn,” NPR, December 15, 2020.

  18. Smith, B., “The $2.7 Billion Case Against Fox News,” The Daily, February 5, 2021.

  19. Bromwich, J. & Smith, B., “Fox News is Sued by Election Technology Company for Over $2.7 Billion,” The New York Times, February 4, 2021.

  20. Rodgers, J., “Capitol riot defendant's 'Foxitis' defense may do some good,” CNN, May 11, 2020.

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