The brouhaha over Rathergate called to mind how much the media landscape has changed since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the FCC in the mid-1980s. Before the repeal, and the emergence of talk radio and issue-oriented cable news networks, it would have been much more difficult for doubters of the authenticity of the documents to mount a credible challenge to the intial storyline and to get their views out. The requirement that each outlet ensure "balance" in presenting both sides of controversial issues--at the risk of fines or even the yanking of licenses for violations-- chilled vigorous debate about issues of public importance.
There's a lesson here for today's would-be communications reformers, especially the younger ones. When then-FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, the Reagan-appointed FCC chief, announced he wanted to repeal the Fairness Doctrine in the interest of free speech, he was greeted mostly with hoots, including from many mainstream broadcasters who were perfectly happy with the comfortable status quo. Many said it couldn't be done, the courts and Congress wouldn't stand for it. Fowler just put his head down and kept charging full steam ahead. Congresspersons were mortified, of course, and the courts slowed down the effort. But ultimately Fowler prevailed on what was, to my mind, the most important communications policy issue of the 1980s decade.
In pursuing communications policy reform in the post-Rather media age, we might be well-served by thinking boldly, Fowler-like, about big ideas, rather than worrying too much at the outset about the odds for success.