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Mary Jo Melone: The end of the Fairness Doctrine led us to Donald Trump

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In a time long, long ago — in the late 70s and early 80s — and in a land far, far away — Philadelphia — I was a radio journalist. This was so strange a time that AM radio counted. Stranger still, if you spun the dial (this was still possible), you didn’t hear much sex or shouting.

You could, however, hear plenty of stupid. In a cheerfully rough city, that was politics.

Strangest of all, it was remarkably civilized, compared to all the rage on the radio I’ve heard since.

In the GOP head scratching over how a dangerously narcissistic and ignorant boor could end up its presidential candidate, few have admitted that he is the product of conservatives’ great experiment: the end in 1987 of the Fairness Doctrine, that required broadcast stations to air differing points of views on a subject.

Conservatives — blissful then, during the Reagan years — chafed at the word required. Forcing broadcasters to be judicious was an unfair, no, odious limit on free speech.

With the end of the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters could say whatever they wanted, and Limbaugh and his wolf pack of unschooled clones have done so every since.

The doctrine died as a result of a belief in the so-called marketplace of ideas. In that imaginary land of unbridled speech, good ideas would be sorted out from bad, and the good would win out. The idea was born of 400 years of thinking that people are noble and driven purely by reason.

Never were the philosopher kings so wrong.

The logic of the marketplace works for buying cars and making computer chips, but if it worked for ideas, the Romans would have tossed roses to the Christians.

Instead the ideas emptiest of reason — let’s build walls, keep out the Arabs, bring those rich Chinese to their knees — rise. The noisiest and the nastiest become leaders, and since the modern marketplace of ideas requires commercials be sold, very rich, to boot.

Nobody stifles free speech better than a bully. Just ask the parade of GOP presidential candidates who ended up so much burnt toast thanks to what writer David Frum calls the “conservative entertainment complex.”

On Tuesday, no less than Mitch McConnell complained about the damage done to his party by the allegedly rational workings of the intellectual marketplace. According to the Washington Examiner, McConnell said, “A lot of base voters have been really misled by a lot of talk show hosts and others about what’s achievable when you don’t have the White House.”

In that time long, long ago, when microphones still had to be tethered to recording devices, we used to say of men like McConnell, “Give him enough mic cable and he’ll hang himself.”

Reporters can be crude, but that crack is profound: if you let people who should know better talk long enough, they will reveal themselves and their mistakes, usually unconsciously.

Cynics might laugh, but this is far from funny. The GOP is a victim of its flawed version of freedom of expression. Let’s hope that, come November, the rest of us are not.

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Tampa-based writer Mary Jo Melone is a former columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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