A Few Decades With Andy Rooney

When Andy Rooney makes his final regular appearance on “60 Minutes” this weekend, it will mark not only the end of a remarkably long television gig, but the end of one of the last links to a time when broadcasters were under government orders to be fair.

The Federal Communications Commission promulgated its Fairness Doctrine in 1949. The commission reasoned that broadcasters hold rights to the public airwaves as a public trust, and that they therefore owe society more than melodrama and comedy. FCC rules obliged radio and television stations to present various viewpoints on “controversial issues of public importance.” CBS and other television networks were not directly subject to these rules, but the network-owned local stations and independently owned affiliates were required to report on their efforts every time their licenses came up for renewal.

News programming, including shows like “60 Minutes,” earned Fairness Doctrine brownie points. They certainly covered matters of public importance, and they purported to be fair and free of editorializing, which the FCC never much cared for. Before the Fairness Doctrine, the commission’s “Mayflower doctrine” actually prohibited on-air editorials. That position probably could not have survived a First Amendment challenge. The Fairness Doctrine replaced it with a mandate that if a station broadcast its own views, it had an obligation to broadcast contrary views as well.

The producers of “60 Minutes” wanted to create the television equivalent of a news magazine. News magazines contain opinion columns, and CBS wanted to have them too, without running afoul of the Fairness Doctrine. The answer was “Point/Counterpoint,” a weekly feature in which a conservative one-time segregationist, James J. Kilpatrick, debated with a liberal counterpart, first Nicholas von Hoffman and later Shana Alexander.

I don’t recall the Kilpatrick-von Hoffman segments, which aired from 1971 to 1974. I do remember the ones with Alexander, as does almost everyone who saw the parodies that Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin performed on “Saturday Night Live.” Kilpatrick was the Southern rube who only grudgingly accepted that the Confederacy would not rise again; Alexander was the feminist liberal who would gladly have consigned Kilpatrick to a locked closet in the Smithsonian. As I recall, they yelled at one another a lot, but I never had the impression that either of them was truly angry. Their job was to see that the Fairness Doctrine was satisfied. They took care of business without ever changing one another’s minds or, I believe, anybody else’s. Then and now, the trouble with talking heads on television is that nobody ever seems to be listening.

A summer replacement for Point/Counterpoint, Rooney’s first opinion piece was on traffic safety. I do not remember whether he was for it or against it. Rooney never needed a counterpart because, as the show’s resident curmudgeon, he encouraged viewers to disagree with him. Sometimes he may have disagreed with himself. Curmudgeons are allowed to do that.

After one season in which Rooney alternated with Point/Counterpoint, “60 Minutes” dropped the dueling editorials and yielded the last minutes of each week’s 60 to Rooney. Somebody must have been watching, because Rooney generated a lot of mail – he often told us about it – and because the CBS suits would not have left Rooney there if he killed the lead-in for their Sunday prime-time lineup. Personally, I seldom paid a lot of attention to Rooney, even though our screen is usually tuned to “60 Minutes.” He was just there, getting older and crankier every week, a lot like me.

The FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. It never achieved its goal of turning commercial broadcasting into a serious forum for public debate. In fact, it discouraged a lot of public debate, since it forced broadcasters to air opinions they did not deem airworthy, and since it magnified the amount of time each station needed to devote to any issue it chose to tackle. Stations found that it was much better business to avoid controversial topics altogether, or to pretend to address them with commentaries, like Rooney’s, that did not really require opposing viewpoints.

The country would have been better served to let each station air whatever opinions it chose and to count on a diversity of stations to bring forth a diversity of views. Ultimately, that is what has happened, especially with the advent of cable television, and later the internet. Nobody can say we lack access to different viewpoints today.

Congress liked the Fairness Doctrine. Politicians believe any criticism they receive is unfair and that they have a God-given right to rebut it. But Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush vetoed efforts to put the doctrine back into federal law. The FCC finally got around to repealing its regulatory language last month.

Yet broadcasters seldom use their current freedom to aggressively push a particular point of view. That kind of advocacy, sometimes passing itself off as fair and balanced news coverage (and not only by outfits that use “fair and balanced” as a slogan), is more common on cable, in print, and on the web. Maybe because it is better for business or maybe because it is just habit, most broadcasters still air commentaries that hardly require opposing viewpoints when they air commentaries at all.

Andy Rooney was like an irascible uncle who always seemed to be around. Sometimes he demanded attention when you really had better things to do. He could be annoying while he was there, yet you missed him after he’d gone home. He also paved the way for folks like me to foist their unsolicited opinions onto a public that was not dying to hear us, so I owe him a personal thank-you.

Andy, you inspired old coots across America. Enjoy some well-earned time off, and drop in whenever you like.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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