A generation before the rise of talk radio and hosts like Rush Limbaugh, there was another wave of right‐wing radio. But the reason why few remember them is that they were the target of a hugely successful government censorship campaign implemented by President John F. Kennedy using IRS audits and the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine.”
But as our host, Paul Matzko—whose book on the subject comes out next week—this isn’t just a question of history. Today, there is a growing, bi‐partisan push for government regulation of the internet that resembles the way the State regulated radio in the 1960s and which could just as easily be hijacked in order to advance partisan interests.
00:04 Paul Matzko: Welcome to Building Tomorrow, a show about what a free and fair future might look like, and how we can get there. Today, however, we’re going to go back to the past, albeit a past that can help us prepare for what’s on the horizon. The internet regulation, the unchecked imploded executive branch of government, and the promise and perils of new forms of media. So which fascinating guest are we gonna have on to cover that terrain? It’s me, c’est moi. So before I came to Cato, I was an academic historian studying the origins of modern American conservatism. And I’m happy to announce that a book that I spent the better part of a decade writing, it’s being released next week, June 16th, by Oxford University Press. The title is, “The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.” And I’ll put a link in the notes if you’re interested in getting a copy. So let me start the stage. And I’m gonna give you kind of a summary of, I think, the highlights of the book, especially in terms of its use of technology and the kind of politics, the regulatory politics around radio in the 1960s, and then I’m gonna give you five morals of the story, things that apply to today and to the future. So if you’re not interested in the actual story, you can skip ahead, though it’ll obviously will provide context for what the heck I’m talking about in the last half.
01:29 Paul Matzko: Okay, cast your minds back to the post‐World War II period; late 1940s, early 1950s. What was true of media, broadcast media at the time, was that radio was the king until suddenly it wasn’t. For the 1930s, the 1940s, and into the 1950s, most radio stations were part of network radio. The big companies, your CBSs, your NBCs, headquartered in New York City, controlling hundreds or thousands of radio stations across the country. Very little radio is independent of network control by the 1940s. But with the rise of television in the late ’40s and into the ’50s, the big networks were starting a shift to their attention and shift where they were spending capital. They’re not interested in acquiring new radio stations as much as they’re interested in acquiring television stations, and that’s where advertising money is shifting as well. So television is the future of network broadcasting, but radio still exists. Not only does it still exist, it’s still growing; new station licenses are being issued, there’s twice as many as there were just a few years before. By the mid‐1950s, it grows to quadruple the number within a decade or so.
02:47 Paul Matzko: And so all these new radio stations aren’t going to the networks, they’re now independent. And independent radio is just very different from the big network systems, where they would pay for high production quality programs that they would send out to all their affiliates to air simultaneously across much of the nation. Independent radio was a mom‐and‐pop operations; the local car dealer would buy a radio station and air programming, cheap programming from wherever he could get it, while inter‐cutting it with ads for his car business, or for local area businesses. So it was much more of a shoe‐string budget, and it was always looking for content, and paid content was what you really wanted. Most of these independent radio station owners were not political, they were not people who were Conservative or Liberal. The only color they cared about wasn’t red or blue, it was green; money is green, cash is king. So they were willing to air stuff that the networks would have turned their nose up at. And the big networks had always been suspicious of radical politics, and to them, you have to remember, in the 1940s, what counted as radical is different than today.
03:58 Paul Matzko: So it did include, they were interested in airing lots of socialist or far left wing radical content, but they also were interested in airing what we would call conservative content today that was considered very radical at the time. And so they wouldn’t air stuff from either the right or the left; it was all kind of mediocre, milquetoast, moderate, centrist, consensus‐type of material that the networks would air. Independent radio, much more open to whatever, as long as you were paying them to air it. So there’s an opportunity here; a boom in the number of stations, less network control, the price of air time also falls precipitously as the advertising revenue shifts over to television. And so suddenly there’s this crop of right‐wing broadcasters who are able to build these massive national syndicated networks of radio stations that air their programs, almost overnight. There’s a bunch of them I could talk about, and I won’t bore you with the details. But there’s quite a lot of diversity among them, it’s everything from the dean of the law school at Notre Dame, a Catholic layman named Clarence Manion, to a Church of Christ minister named Billy James Hargis, to a Presbyterian minister named Carl McIntire, to HL Hunt, a big business owner in Texas who essentially buys a bunch of programming and airs on a bunch of radio stations that promote his home goods business.
05:25 Paul Matzko: So it’s quite a range of different people who were involved in broadcasting at the time. But just for the sake of illustration, the most prominent of those was Carl McIntire, that Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. At his peak, he had an audience of 20 million estimated weekly listeners. That’s one in nine American households at the time. That is as many as Rush Limbaugh at his peak four decades later. Rush Limbaugh had some years where he peaked up to, maybe an average of the upper teens, maybe 20 on some of the episodes, yet the national population was a good bit smaller in the 1960s. You’ve probably never heard of him; you’ve heard of Rush Limbaugh, but you haven’t heard of Carl McIntire. So these people fell off the face of the earth, and we’ll talk about why later. But in the 1960s, they’re hugely influential, and they’re in American homes across the country, and that happens almost overnight. Take McIntire; in 1957 he’s on two radio stations; 1960 he’s over a hundred; 1964 he’s on about 480 radio stations. So in seven years, from two to 480; that’s nuts, that’s a nuts exponential growth curve, basically.
06:39 Paul Matzko: So you have, what I call, and this is the title of the book, The Radio Right. You’re familiar with the influence of Fox News, of this kind of national network, its influence on politics and conservative thought today for good or for, well, for ill. This kind of was a quasi‐syndicated network that exercised that kind of influence on the grassroots conservatism. And it’s a new thing. There had been conservative broadcasters before this. Those who are versed at radio history will think of people like Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s and others, but they were usually isolated voices. The idea that you could, all over the country, that most Americans could turn on their radio station any day of the week, and for basically all day listen to nothing but conservative programming was truly unprecedented. We’re familiar with that with talk radio, but this is when that begins, was in the late ’50s and ’60s.
07:35 Paul Matzko: Now, if you think about the early 1960s, as these guys are peaking in their influence, those of you who know the history of the presidency, know that John F. Kennedy, a Democratic president is president from 1961 till he’s assassinated in 1963. JFK, while not some sort of radical crazy liberal, is left of center on a number of issues. And so conservative broadcasters find him deeply alienating. They do not like this fellow. So they criticize everything from his conduct of foreign policy, accuse him of selling out to the communists, to his domestic policy, his creation of the Peace Corps, the way he handles civil rights, all of this, he’s constantly under attack from these right wing radio broadcasters, which, again, are new. Today, we’re kinda used to, if you’re a Democratic president, if you’re Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, you expect to be attacked by talk radio, by Rush Limbaugh and the like. But this is the first time that it’s happening to quite the same degree and just quite this barrage, this constant barrage all across the nation.
08:40 Paul Matzko: Two of the things that they attack in particular, and this first one is one of my favorite bits. I have a whole chapter on what I call the great Polish ham boycott of 1962. Kennedy had eased trade relations with Eastern Europe. And Eastern Europe had been part of what Winston Churchill called after World War II, the Iron Curtain. It was Soviet communist dominated Eastern Europe like Poland, Yugoslavia, etcetera. Parts of it were actual puppet governments of the Soviet Union, some were more independent and just in a kind of a trade relationship with the Soviet Union. But Kennedy’s idea was that he would kind of woo them out from under Soviet domination or influence or undermine the influence by encouraging free trade with those countries. It’s actually not a bad strategy. This has been a strategy for the Obama Administration in Cuba. It’s been the strategy of Nixon in China in the ’70s. So again, it’s not a bad strategy. It’s not popular with conservatives at the time, who are not committed free traders and were very suspicious of anything that might help the Communists. And trade, by definition, helps both parties. So not big fans of this.
09:44 Paul Matzko: So conservative radio broadcasters start attacking the administration’s policy of opening trade and bringing in goods like Yugoslavian wicker baskets and Polish hams, apparently Poland’s a big exporter of ham. Who knew? And as they’re attacking this on the airwaves, there are listeners who tend to skew middle‐age suburban women are also very concerned by this. They start promoting this boycott. It started with a chiropractor in Miami, Florida, of all places. And this boycott was an effort through a letter writing campaigns and direct action protests to convince retail stores not to sell these offending imported goods. The right‐wing radio network boosts, amplifies, the signal manyfold. And it goes from one chapter in Miami to more than 200 chapters nationwide. So you have suddenly all these housewives, all across the nation, holding what they called card parties, where they would take little slips of paper with slogans written on them like, “Buy your communist goods at super giant.” And they would… A couple dozen of them would jump in the cars, all rush into the store at once, and just put these cards everywhere. Tuck them in the suit coat pocket of every mens’ jacket in the department store, or slip them in the tubes of toothpaste, or just litter them on displays and everywhere you could see to alienate customers.
11:12 Paul Matzko: And this is a time of peak anti‐Communist hysteria. This was an effective way of embarrassing the shops, the shop owners, convincing them to pull the goods. And it worked like gangbusters. Companies were pulling these items off their shelves, writing abject apologies. It’s everyone from the big dogs of the day like SS Kresge and the precursors of companies like Linen ‘n Things. And it actually includes Disney World. Disney World pulls some of the offending goods and writes apology letters. Congress then acts. There’s enough pressure on Congress that they censure JFK. They say, “You shouldn’t have… ” It’s mostly a symbolic rebuke, but they say, “You shouldn’t have extended the most favored nation trade status to Poland.” So it’s a black eye for the Kennedy Administration on something that was supposed to be an easy win. And there’s a series of these. I’m not gonna go into all of the details, but I do love the idea of this little group, and growing group, I guess I should say, of suburban middle class housewives all across the country who, inspired by right‐wing radio, create this mass social protest movement that’s effective enough to force Congress to act and to really harm the image, and cost political capital for JFK.
12:30 Paul Matzko: And indeed, and what we’re gonna talk about next, Kennedy’s response, his censorship plan, the need for it, he actually discusses, I have him on tape in an Oval Office recording, discussing his plan to suppress the radio right. And one of the documents that was exchanged internally in his administration, they specifically named these boycotting housewives, these card partiers, as they called them, as evidence of why they need to suppress right‐wing radio. Its ability to gin up this grassroots enthusiasm. And that’s really interesting. In historical terms it’s a reminder, all too often historians tend to look at personalities, the politicians, the intellectuals, that kind of person, and their view of history is top‐down rather than bottom‐up, when the reality is, this was a mass popular movement. It was the popularizers, the radio right broadcast hosts, who did a whole lot more to build the new right than the William F. Buckleys and Barry Goldwaters, the political and intellectual personalities that we remember today, while we conveniently forget these… It’s kind of embarrassing conspiratorial‐minded and racist. I mean, these broadcasters were opposed to desegregation, so we kinda shuffle them off and ignore the role they played in the rise of the new right.
13:58 Paul Matzko: Kennedy, confronted by the radio right, comes up with a plan. It’s actually based off of a strategy given to him by his allies in the labor unions, the Walter and Victor Reuther, who are the heads of the United Auto Workers, a very influential union in American labor unionism. And they come up with a plan in the document that’s kind of nicknamed the Reuther Memorandum, to go after the radio right along two main axes that we’ll discuss today. One is to use the IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, the head of which is an old law professor buddy of Robert Kennedy, who Kennedy appoints as his Attorney General. So talk about nepotism. Actually, some of the nepotism rules that Donald Trump broke in appointing Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to positions in the White House, were put in place because Kennedy had put Robert Kennedy in as AG, and people said, “Woah, woah. That’s unacceptable nepotism.” So there’s some funny parallelism there.
14:56 Paul Matzko: But this document’s produced for Robert and John F. Kennedy by Walter and Victor Reuther. And they say, “Okay, let’s use the IRS. You nominated the head of the IRS. He’s a political appointee, beholden for his political aspirations to the President. He has a personal relationship with Robert, with the Attorney General. Have the IRS just audit the heck out of these radio right broadcasters. See if you can remove their tax‐exempt status. Because if they don’t have tax‐exempt status, who’s gonna donate money to them? It’ll substantially dry up their ability to raise funds to buy airtime for their programs. No funds, no airtime, no influence.” And so the IRS… And I detail the interactions between the Kennedys and the head of the IRS, but they’re directly interacting, which is a no‐no. I mean, it would be a gross violation of the law if it had been discovered at the time. And they put pressure on the IRS to investigate these broadcasters. And when the field offices who are filled with long‐serving civil servants, not political appointees who change every administration like the higher ranks do, they kept coming back and saying, “No, there’s nothing to see here, there’s no reason to audit them or to revoke their tax‐exempt status,” they would say, “Try again, look again harder, and do that time and time and time again.”
16:19 Paul Matzko: So eventually, the National Office had actually had to take over the investigation into one of these broadcasters Billy James Hargis, and do it themselves, which was a highly unusual step. But it’s because there wasn’t anything there that was unusual other than that Kennedy wanted it done. The Kennedy administration wanted to take down the radio right a notch. So the IRS called it its ideological organizations project. Again, you can read more about it in the book, but it’s really a shocking abuse of the IRS’s audit power. Not unprecedented. Most administrations, frankly, since the formation of the IRS, have done at least some skulduggery around they use the IRS to target political opponents, but this is really one of the more egregious, both in scope and in effect, ‘cause they did remove the tax‐exempt status from some of these programs successfully. Some just tied them up in expensive court battles for the better part of a decade. So it was very effective as well.
17:13 Paul Matzko: It would be as if, if you remember a few years ago, there were accusations that the Obama administration, that Lois Lerner, who was the head of the IRS, had delayed, had slow rolled the application for tax‐exempt status for some Tea Party groups. As far as I know, there was no order for her to do so. There’s no conspiracy there or anything. She just was a motivated ideological person who didn’t like the Tea Party and did it on her own recognizance, so it wasn’t like Obama ordered it. But imagine if you found evidence that he had, that he was worried about the Tea Party slowing his attempt to pass the ACA healthcare reform, and so he ordered the head of the IRS to shut them down, to delay them, to hurt his political opponents using the power of the IRS. That would be a massive scandal. We would have… That’s an impeachable level offense, right? That’s what Kennedy did to the radio right in the 1960s. So that’s one arm of the campaign.
18:07 Paul Matzko: The other arm of the campaign is to use the Federal Communications Commission, which is who licenses broadcasters, or I should say licenses stations, that gives them their chunk of the spectrum to operate on in this region at this power, etcetera, tells the Federal Communications Commission to use a set of rules called the Fairness Doctrine to, essentially to suppress right‐wing radio speech on the radio airwaves.
18:41 Paul Matzko: The Fairness Doctrine is a set of rules, I won’t get too much into the weeds with this, but the ostensible goal of it was to ensure that radio stations didn’t hold to just one point of view. They didn’t editorialize or promote only the points of view of their owners, but they would represent both major points of view on any given controversial issue of public importance. That was the phrase. So, like if the Vietnam War, they wouldn’t just be either pro‐war or anti‐war, they would air voices that were both pro‐war and against the war. That was the goal. That was the intent of the Fairness Doctrine. It was mostly honored in the breach however, until the Kennedy administration. And they really saw an opportunity here that if you could use the Fairness Doctrine to go after only one side, it wouldn’t keep things fair, it would just suppress your political opposition. And so, that’s what Kennedy did. He appointed the new Chairman of the FCC in 1963, a fellow named E. William Henry and told him right at the outset. This is a quote from Kennedy, “It is important that stations be kept fair.” So, I’m appointing you, I’m nominating you, making you the head of the FCC, I want you to enforce the Fairness Doctrine to a degree it’s never been enforced before and Henry does.
20:03 Paul Matzko: They do a couple of things. They bulk up enforcement of the rules, they create new rules even, there’s a thing called the Coleman Doctrine, which requires that if you aired one side, if you let someone air say an attack on the Kennedy administration’s Vietnam War policy, and someone who has had the other view was either for or against the war, had the other view, felt that you were unfair to them or if there was a personal attack of them, if you said that such and such person had lied or was misleading the American people, they could get response time to say, “Uh‐huh, no I wasn’t,” and that response time had to be given for free if the person said that they couldn’t pay, and guess what? No one ever says they can pay. So, it’s basically if you air controversial speech and don’t balance that with opposite speech, you’re gonna have to give away that air time for free.
21:00 Paul Matzko: This has a chilling effect, because radio stations now, if you bring on a right‐wing person, who’s going to attack Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs, or as becomes an issue in ‘64, they’re attacking LBJ, Lyndon Johnson, accusing him of using the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for a war to help his electoral chances in ‘64, which we now know is true, [chuckle] that’s true. Conservatives attack in ‘64 and they were right. The Johnson Administration was able to say, “Well, we get our say and you have to give it to us for free.” Now, if you’re a radio station owner, remember your budget is tight, you’re barely getting by month from month, you can’t double pay, you can’t have people, you know… Or give out twice as much time. You’re losing time and losing time means losing money. And so, the idea is, they’ll stop being as willing to air conservative broadcasters in the first place, if they have to give away response time for free. So that’s the other arm of this censorship campaign by the Kennedy administration. And again, more details in the book.
22:06 Paul Matzko: And they go as far. There’s some kind of outlandish stories within there. They actually create two front organizations, one, the Kennedys do it. One after Kennedy is assassinated, the Democratic National Committee and United Auto Workers pay for the creation of a front organization. But they create these two front organizations to basically launder cash and present a seeming bi‐partisan neutral front to request equal time, to request response time under the Fairness Doctrine from stations that air Conservative broadcasters. You see how that worked? Because if people… If the White House did it itself, people would say, “Oh, well, that’s… You’re playing partisan games and using executive power to do that. Don’t do that, that’s bad, that’s impeachable.” But if you launder it through these front organizations, you can get away with it and they did. So there was a group called the Committee for Nuclear Test Ban, that’s created in the White House by the Kennedys, and that leverages, that’s actually out of a complaint by them that you get this thing called the Coleman Doctrine in the first place.
23:09 Paul Matzko: So it’s really quite an impressive and wide‐reaching censorship campaign drawing in everyone from the Labor Unions to the National Council of Churches, you know, multiple members of the Kennedy administration, the Democratic National Committee, senate Democrats, as I’ll describe in a second, and it is very successful. It continues after Kennedy’s death, he doesn’t know he’s getting a bullet to the head. In the summer of ‘64, the DNC launches a summer project, they hire a political operative named Wayne Phillips to leverage these fairness doctrine complaints and win free time for the Johnson campaign during the crucial electioneering period in the summer and fall of ‘64. And actually, when it’s done, they write back to the DNC Chairman, a fella named John Bailey, and in the report Phillip says, “More important than the free radio time… ” And what he’s referring to is the hundreds of hours of free response time that the DNC extracted through the fairness doctrine in the lead up to November, but more important than that, was quote, “The effectiveness of this operation in inhibiting the political activity of these right‐wing broadcasts.” We have a term for that in history that’s called a smoking gun, [chuckle] right?
24:25 Paul Matzko: So, it wasn’t known until this book was that that’s actually coming originally from the White House, from the Kenedy administration prior to his death. But it really is a shocking admission that we have documentary evidence of this successful censorship campaign. I won’t go into details here, but there’s a later phase when Senate Democrats working with the National Council of Churches put even more pressure on stations through ‘65, ‘66, ‘67, and they continue to leverage those fairness doctrine rules, but it’s no longer in‐house at the White House or under the scope of the DNC. It’s kind of been outsourced in a sense, it’s highly effective. So just to give you an illustration, McIntire, Carl McIntire goes from being on 480 stations in ‘64, to just 183, three years later. On average, most of the Conservative programs dropped from between 33% and 59% in a two or three year period. So just a dropping off the chart in a very short period of time. In fact the US Senate Democrats, they drop their congressional investigation because it’s been so successful using informal pressure or what we call today, “jaw boning.”
25:41 Paul Matzko: You’re kind of using your informal power to intimidate people into getting what you want. The informal government power and influence to intimidate private companies to do what you want them to do, which will become meaningful in a minute. So, very successful and the radio right doesn’t recover until the 1980s, till the rise of talk radio. But Nixon also takes advantage of the Fairness Doctrine, his political operatives, people like Chuck Colson, folks involved in Watergate a few years later, they basically would go to the television broadcast networks. And if you just dropped the word, the words Fairness Doctrine, it implied the threat of its use, these network executives would be significantly accommodating. As Colson wrote back to Nixon he said, of the CBS executives expecting a show down that they were, “Accommodating, cordial and almost apologetic.” This became embarrassing later, after the Pentagon Papers came out after Watergate when it’s revealed that the networks were changing their coverage of the Vietnam War to be more favorable to Nixon under pressure from Nixon, again, threat to the Fairness Doctrine.
26:49 Paul Matzko: So Nixon continues to use these rules, then the Carter’s FCC stops enforcing the Fairness Doctrine, still on the books, but he eases enforcement. And then during the Regan administration, they remove it from the books, the functionally. And Fairness Doctrine is dead in 1987. And so that’s why conservative talk radio takes off after that, removed from this chilling effect created by the Fairness Doctrine.
27:22 Paul Matzko: Now some lessons here. And I think these are key because it’s not just about the past. I just told you a story that’s all about the ’60s, you might be saying, “What does half a century have to do with today?” But that’s because even though it is an old media form, albeit radio is still with us, the lessons of how it was used by marginal interest groups, and then how the regulatory environment affected it, apply to new media forms today, specifically to the Internet and social media. But the first lesson is, when you think about history, and when you think about politics and society and culture and technology today, think structurally. We spend way too much time thinking about what Marx calls the epiphenomenal, so I’m borrowing a term from the Marxists. There is the phenom, the phenomenal, the structural stuff, and then the epiphenomenal, the fluff on top. And the fluff on top is all the retail politics, the glad handing, the partisan back and forth between members of Congress and the political class.
28:31 Paul Matzko: All that stuff on the surface has relatively low chances of having long‐term impact. But there are these big structural changes happening underneath, almost out of sight, where real change happens and can really take us by surprise. So in this case, in my story, it’s, well, look, no one predicted that the decline of network radio and its transition to independent radio, if you were a betting person at the time, you would have said, “Oh, well this means radio is gonna become way less significant, less important, its days are done. It’s all about TV now.” They weren’t entirely wrong, but that structural change in the industry, in the broadcasting industry actually provided an opportunity for radical right radio voices to have a new form of influence and build a new political movement that utterly transformed American politics for the next half century for good or for ill.
29:27 Paul Matzko: Also, the other lesson here is the immense unintended consequences of rules being made unnoticed by the wider… I mean, the wider public isn’t paying attention to this, but a handful of well connected elites and bureaucrats can make rule changes that have drastic significance for broader politics and broader society. Like the Fairness Doctrine was not a thing that there was a groundswell of support from Americans. A handful of FCC folks and Congressman, actually, Congress voted on it not realizing what they were… The full ramifications of what they were voting on in 1959. It was essentially a handful of FCC folks who pushed through what would become the Fairness Doctrine, with all these vast echoing consequences for the next several decades. So think structural, and try to be attuned to the ways in which these levers of power, these fundamental levers of power concentrated in places like Washington DC, but also in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, can really rapidly transform American society and culture in the blink of an eye and go unrecognized, unnoticed by most people.
30:37 Paul Matzko: Lesson number two is about the dangers of the imperial, bloated executive branch, and presidential historians often talk about the rise of the imperial presidency. How across both parties, both Democrats and Republicans, there’s this constant upward trend of greater executive power, of greater legislative deference to the executive, and it’s just… It feels inexorable, maybe a brief respite from it in the ’70s, after Watergate and some of the Congressional investigations into executive misconduct, but other than that, pretty inexorable from the 1930s on. But the problem is, beyond the stuff that conservatives usually talk about, which is inefficiency and waste, and they spend too much tax money and yada, yada, and sure, that’s an issue, is that from a functioning civic sphere, from a functioning democratic standpoint, is that this means that there’s a vast and growing number of potential levers that the executive can lean on to punish its political opponents and to reward its allies.
31:45 Paul Matzko: Historically, that’s been true, things like the post office, things like the Comstock laws, punishing people who were in favor of early feminists, in favor of birth control, punishing abolitionists, banning the spread of abolitionist mail through the post office. So, you could suppress a lot of political speech just by controlling the post office. This is also true of things like postal rates, your political enemies should have to pay more for their postage and those who are your friends. Actually, Donald Trump has suggested this in regards to the Washington Post, that because Jeff Bezos owns both the Post and the Amazon, the Amazon should thus have to pay more to mail its packages, because Bezos has the Washington Post say nasty things about Trump. There’s no sign he’s actually acted on that. But you can see he’s interested in the right scenario of someone who is more competent at politics. That’s a thing they could do and get away with if they were clever enough.
32:44 Paul Matzko: But this applies to radio as well and to other media forms. You can use newspaper radio ownership rules, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Nixon, they didn’t like the fact that there were newspapers that criticize their administrations. For Roosevelt, it was anti‐New Deal newspaper owners, for Nixon, it was Katharine Graham who owned the Washington Post that launched the Watergate investigations really go back to some Woodward and Bernstein reporting on deep throat and all that in the Watergate scandal. And FDR tried to use a ban on newspapers buying radio stations to punish his political enemies, and inhibit dissent from his administration. Nixon successfully did so and passed a newspaper ownership, cross media, it’s not just newspapers and radio, but cross media ownership regulations that prevent how much you can own in different media venues if you own a lot in one.
33:43 Paul Matzko: It was expressly as a tool of suppressing dissent, using governmental power, abusing governmental power to punish your political opponents. The point here is pretty obvious, you name a government agency, odds are there’s either already an example from American history of the administration trying to manipulate it for political gain. Or if it’s a newer one, it’s not hard to imagine how a simultaneously competent and unscrupulous administration might use it for political gain, and odds are, will do some day.
34:24 Paul Matzko: Now the third lesson is, what I call the other foot test. The shoe will always end up on the other foot. When you are considering a new… Propose a new agency or set of regulations and you’re only thinking about how it might benefit your side in the short term, that’s a mistake, because inevitably, the other side, whoever it is, whether Democrats, or Republicans, Conservatives, or Liberals is gonna get a turn at the helm as long as we’re a functioning democracy, which I guess we can’t take for granted anymore. But they’re gonna get a turn at the steering wheel. And for all the good you think it can do for you and yours, spend some time first thinking about what could be done if the other guys get a chance to wield that same power. If that gives you pause, then maybe you shouldn’t do it. In my case here, actually, some of the operatives working for the Kennedy Administration and then the Democratic National Committee in the ’60s. It was after they saw Nixon use the Fairness Doctrine as a weapon that they said, “Oh, if we get to do it, that’s right, the other guys get to do it, and oh man. Oh, that’s dangerous. Whoopsies.”
35:41 Paul Matzko: And so, some of them actually talked to a former CBS News producer named Fred Friendly, plays a role in my book. But we have some of the documentary evidence of this conspiracy, the silenced right‐wing Radio is from RUFO, former Democratic political operatives who realized, “Hmm, maybe I should have tested the other foot before I started using the Fairness Doctrine to go after my political opponents.” Lesson number four, what’s the corollary to ’60s radio today? Why should we care about ’60s radio? Now, take that description, ignore that it’s radio. Just think about this, if I said that there’s this media form that’s existed in some format previously, but has suddenly, because it was kind of a niche interest, has a growing audience. It’s attracted political voices from across the spectrum, like, kind of radical political voices that don’t get air time on the big cable news networks.
36:42 Paul Matzko: And a growing number of Americans are listening to it on a regular basis to the point where it’s starting to wield real political power in party primary processes and the like. If you didn’t know I was already talking about radio in the ’60s, you might think I was talking about podcasting in the 2010s, right? And in the same way, podcasting is this form that has existed for some time. The idea of downloading audio and listening to it can go back to the early days of the Internet, but it doesn’t become convenient and rolled out on a mass scale until relatively recently, until the 2010s. But today, something like a quarter of Americans, including everyone listening to this podcast, listen to podcasts. It’s a regular part of their media diet.
37:31 Paul Matzko: And that’s provided opportunities for more radical voices to have a hearing. Key examples, it’s folks like, on the left, it’s Chapo Trap House, If you’re of a more socialist bent. On the Alt‐Right ethno‐nationalist corner, you’ve got Jordan Peterson and a host of voices there as well. So, on both kind of more radical, previously peripheral voices, they’re building real significant followings using this new media form that’s not controlled by legacy media. They’re able to bypass the traditional media gatekeepers because of that, just as independent radio in the 50s and 60s, allowed these peripheral radical voices to bypass the traditional network gatekeepers who have absconded over to television. So, it’s a very clear comparison and we should expect that to continue to grow. We are, in the sense we’re in 1960. Podcasts have been growing in influence and now folks who are in the know are like, “Oh, this is significant. Oh, this is… ” Andrew Yang announces his candidacy on, I think, it was Joe Rogan’s podcast. Folks are starting to realize the power of this new media form, but we’re not at peak. We’re not at peak influence yet, we’ve still got room to grow. And we should expect that to continue and then continue to amplify radical voices from both left and right for good or for ill.
38:53 Paul Matzko: Other examples, you can think of the effective use of social media, Twitter, Instagram by everyone from alt‐right figures to Democratic socialists to like Matt Gaetz. Matt Gaetz and Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez are both very effective at rallying their bases using Instagram. And it’s a new media form, social media, that’s still under‐employed, still has a lot of room to grow, both in terms of audience and influence. So, expect that to have destabilizing influence on American politics over the next decade.
39:37 Paul Matzko: The fifth lesson that I’ll point out, and this one’s a little more policy‐oriented, it’s that you really should beware all this conversation about ensuring internet non‐discrimination, or ending shadow banning, or ensuring fairness on social media. There have been multiple proposals to tweak what is known as the Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act. Some of our previous Building Tomorrow episodes, we’ve talked about CDA 230 at some length before. And the reason why it’s very dangerous is, in part, because in the ’90s, we learned some of the lessons from previous new media forms, from the way we regulated radio, from the way we regulated TV and realized that the way we had done so, we had not given enough freedom to those forms and had stultified their development had had a chilling effect on political speech. It had harmed civic discourse in America as a result. And I think because of that we enshrined full First Amendment protections for the internet from the early days in the 1990s. Protections, again, they don’t really surpass the First Amendment, but we didn’t extend full First Amendment rights to radio or to television.
41:05 Paul Matzko: Even today, the FCC can ban obscenity in primetime network television coverage, right? You can’t have nudity and lots of swearing ‘cause the kids might see it. Well, can you imagine if we managed the internet like that? You can of course switch to cable news, and if you’re under the age of like 70, you probably prefer what you get on cable to what you get on network television, right? All the interesting stuff’s on cable, why? Well, it’s because cable is the one area of television that’s largely exempt of the kind of speech controls that are okay for the rest of broadcasting. And we wisely in the ’90s had those broad First Amendment protections for the internet from the get go. And the vitality, the diversity of voices on the internet, all that is a testament to ensuring a maximal freedom, First Amendment protection and freedom on the internet because of Section 230.
42:02 Paul Matzko: If we weaken that, in the well intentioned, perhaps, but ultimately dangerous effort to weaken those protections, to weaken 230 to ensure fairness, or non‐discrimination or banning shadow‐banning, etcetera, we risk doing to the internet, what was done to radio in the ’60s. Creating the tools for those with power to censor those who do not have power, creating the tools of censorship, creating a chilling effect on political discourse on the internet. So it’s a fantastically dangerous idea. Another example of this is right now all this action from both left and right, the left wants to discourage hate speech on social media platforms, the right wants to ensure that conservative speech isn’t discriminated against. All that really is a kind of jawboning like we described earlier during both the Nixon administration and with US Senate Democrats in the later ’60s.
43:03 Paul Matzko: You might not even have to pass a regulation like the Fairness Doctrine in order to accomplish some of its purposes. By jawboning maybe you can convince these private companies to censor speech themselves. I mean, censor is the wrong word since censorship formally applies only to the government restrictions on speech, but to content moderate in keeping with the goals of those who are using political power to accomplish those aims. So for example, as Prager University and right‐wing outlets are accusing Twitter and Google and Facebook and the like of algorithmically punishing their content, whether or not that’s true, which it isn’t. But whether or not it’s true, if you can get them, because of those complaints, pressure them to upgrade you and the algorithm and rankings. Well, that’s great. And if you can use the threat of government regulation to do that, well, you just jawboned your way into a political advantage over your opposition.
44:04 Paul Matzko: So that’s the thing to watch as well. Even if formal internet regulation doesn’t happen, efforts by the Trump administration to weaken section 230, or by private actors on both left and right to jawbone private companies using the threat of government power can be harmful as well. You don’t actually need the regulations to get the chilling effect. And if something like that ever happened, if we got a new Fairness Doctrine for the internet, you should expect that to hurt marginalized voices on both left and right, just as a precursor to the Fairness Doctrine suppressed both socialist speech and conservative speech in the 1930s and ’40s. And I don’t have time to go into that here. But we have lots of historical examples of how attempts to ensure fairness, what it really does is exclude dissenting radical voices from both left and right.
44:57 Paul Matzko: It’s particularly ironic that this current energy from the Trump administration and folks like Josh Hawley, a Senator from Missouri who’s proposed a non‐discrimination rule. In fact, an empowered FTC sub‐agency to ensure social platform non‐discrimination is that they don’t realize this history. This should be something that both left and right are concerned about, that the use of government power to suppress political dissent can happen from either side. It’s a bipartisan impulse. It’s just power corrupts, and this is one way that power corrupts and destroys a free society and free speech. But conservatives should be particularly attuned to this because the last time we tried something like that, it was… It resulted in the most successful episodes of government censorship of the past half century. I mean, right up there with the greatest acts of censorship in American history, all targeted at conservative radio broadcasters who dared criticize the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
46:02 Paul Matzko: That should be a massive warning sign that if you enact similar rules today, it ain’t gonna turn out so well for conservatives once again, or for the left. The people who benefit are the people who have power. So if you want to see an enhanced and more powerful set of political incumbents, then by all means favor section 230 reforms. But if that sounds like a terrible idea to you, then you can have some confidence that there’s historical backing for why we should be very cautious about instituting new gatekeepers and new systems of government content moderation, and policing of the Internet and of new media forms.
46:45 Paul Matzko: So if any of that content is interesting to you, again, book’s coming out next week, I’d love to see a nice boost of pre‐orders, and there’s a lot more material. I left out so much. There’s a converted World War II minesweeper that Carl McIntyre buys when the FCC revokes his license. And he blasts in defiance of FCC, he sails off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey, and blasts his signal so loud that it’s interrupting radio stations as far away as Salt Lake City. [chuckle] Which is, it’s a kind of a boss pirate radio move. There’s Oswald, who shoots Kennedy, depending on what theory you subscribe to, but who shoots Kennedy. Before Oswald shot Kennedy, he tried shooting this military general who was allied with a right‐wing radio broadcaster, a fella named Edwin Walker, who was working with Billy James Hargis and doing these campaign style rallies around the country. Oswald tried to shoot him through his window, wounded him in the arm. And when Oswald’s wife said, “Well, why do you have the right to do that?” Oswald said, “Well, if you could have killed Hitler before he was Hitler, wouldn’t you think you had the right to do that?” I mean, crazy stuff like that, that I haven’t had time to really talk about in this book.
48:04 Paul Matzko: Plus, there’s plenty more equal opportunity jabs at Republicans and Democrats, at Kennedy, at Nixon, at Trump. So lots of fun stuff in the book, do go check it out. And I think it… Even though it’s not the sort of thing where you say, “Oh, I see a one‐for‐one from then to today,” I think it will help inform your thinking as you consider the future of new media, the future of technology as you think more structurally in how you examine your life, examine society, examine politics. I think you’ll really get a lot out of the book rather than just a fun historical read, though it’s that too. So on that note, until next week, be well.
48:49 Paul Matzko: This episode of Building Tomorrow was produced by Landry Ayres for libertarianism.org. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, check out our online encyclopedia or subscribe to one of our half‐dozen podcasts.