Partisan debate: Can you win 'fair and square' when you listen to only one side?

The Federal Communications Commission's Fairness Doctrine required stations to give all sides a reasonable chance to be heard. It wound up stifling analysis of controversial topics – but its repeal hasn't exactly encouraged give-and-take debate, either.

Alexander Hesler/ AP
Presidential candidates in 1860, the last election year before the Civil War, were, from left: Abraham Lincoln, Republican party; John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, the southern half of the Democratic party; and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, the northern half of the Democratic party.

Nearly a decade ago, in a blow-by-blow assessment of high-level Arab-Israeli peace talks, an associate revealed how US Secretary of State James Baker prepared himself to negotiate thorny issues.

Mr. Baker got his most useful ideas, wrote Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department adviser, by listening as his aides examined all sides of a question in a free-wheeling debate.

The idea of free and fair debate attracted Americans long before James Baker, of course. Abraham Lincoln’s seven debates with Stephen Douglas won him acclaim as “Honest Abe.” Daniel Webster earned the title of the US Senate’s Great Debater for his skillful responses to adversaries.

The accolade of winning an argument “fair and square” enshrined the value of hearing opposing views. The Federal Communications Commission even applied the notion to broadcasting. Its 1949 Fairness Doctrine required stations to give all sides a reasonable chance to be heard on issues that were sometimes hotly contested, such as abortion. 

But its repeal of the doctrine 30 years ago, on August 4, 1987, underscored a key problem: The FCC’s own study found that instead of fostering free speech and broadening discussion, the doctrine instead had a “chilling effect” on debate and stifled analysis of controversial topics. Broadcasters were avoiding topics on which people disagreed, fearful they might be sued in court or penalized by the FCC if they failed to satisfy government bureaucrats.

In 1987, two events – largely unrelated – began reshaping the broadcast industry. The first was what one analyst called an “ironic” expansion of talk radio, so-named because many conservatives initially feared a loss of fairness protections. Instead, conservative hosts became numerous and popular.

The second was an explosion of technology. From 98 television stations in 1949, the number grew to nearly 1,400 by 1989 and more than 2,100 today, plus more than 900 cable operations. Radio’s 2,800 stations in 1949 grew to more than 10,000 by 1989 and to more than 15,500 today. 

So, has give-and-take debate taken hold? 

Not exactly. “The environment has moved more and more and more into a hyper-partisan direction where there is very little balance,” says Frankie Clogston, a political scientist and historian.  

Dr. Clogston found that even after a remarkable expansion of talk radio, a highly partisan realm, America’s airwaves now rarely include more than one side of an argument.  

“It’s just a very narrow-cast environment,” Clogston says.  Despite “a whole lot more political speech,” the airwaves are “completely unbalanced compared to the environment we were in before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.”

Just last week, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona railed against the phenomenon by urging his colleagues to “Stop listening to the bombasting loud mouths on radio and television!”

To hear the other side of any debate, of course, listeners need only consult a program guide and switch channels or stations.

But is that what reformers intended? Having to switch channels? Wouldn’t hearing both sides (as James Baker did) help listeners and viewers understand issues more constructively? Couldn’t that help ease the toxic political atmosphere?

To be sure, simple debate is no guarantee that opponents will soften opinions or change their minds.

Consider the debater’s logic of a 20th  Century civil rights activist:

“Whichever side of the selected subject was assigned to me, I’d track down and study everything I could find on it,” he once wrote. “I’d put myself in my opponent’s place and decide how I’d try to win if I had the other side; and then I’d figure a way to knock down those points.”     

The speaker was Malcolm X.

The virtues of open, freely shared, conflicting ideas are more apparent, perhaps, to those who have experienced give-and-take in public. Gardner Ackley, a diplomat, economist, and former White House adviser, once listed the values he learned from his college debate coach:

“That intellectual effort can be exciting;” he wrote, “that ideas are more important than things; that pursuit of the truth is more important than winning contests; that intellectual honesty and integrity are among the virtues most to be cherished; that one need never be ashamed of idealism and strong convictions.”  

Could this sort of logic transform the current battlefield of ideas in America? In earlier eras of fierce partisanship, politicians and constituents looked for ways to score breakthroughs in fairness and thoughtfulness.

Half a century ago, a Massachusetts senator remarked, “The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now.”

The speaker was John F. Kennedy.

The writer, a retired ABC News national correspondent, is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own. Sarah Choe contributed research.


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