On October 24, 1998, a group of activists from across the United States gathered in Washington DC to protest the Ken Starr investigation into Bill Clinton in the first rally ever organized on the Internet.
Darrell Hampton's umbrella group "We the People" was generally outraged at Starr's excesses; White House staffer Bob Weiner railed against Ken Starr for subpoenaing him for eating ice cream with a fellow Democrat; the fledgling group "Censure and MoveOn" (later to become MoveOn.org) was featured; and my "Truth in America Project" focused on the biased media promoting the investigation, media which had recently gained its dominance from the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
We all understood the long drawn out Grand Jury investigation of Bill Clinton had found no crimes, and so Starr et al manufactured a perjury trap to have an excuse to impeach the President. As I said on the Ellipse in front of the White House, "Is it okay for a big government attorney to work with a private civil lawyer to see if they can figure out a way to get a man to lie about his sex life so they can prosecute him for it?"
But what was just coming to light, and what has had a lasting damaging legacy, is the effect of the 1996 Telecommunications Act on our political landscape.
Brief history: When radio and television were first invented, broadcast pioneers and government officials recognized that radio had the potential to entertain and inform, but when used improperly, also to brainwash a population. So Congress passed the 1934 Communications Act, which limited any one owner in the United States to owning just 9 stations nationwide: 3 AM radio stations, 3 FM radio stations, 3 TV stations. The thinking was that by having multiple local owners, no one person could dominate the (publicly owned) airwaves with political rhetoric.
Ah, those were the days...
Over the years, those rules were relaxed. By the time Ronald Reagan was president, one owner could have 20 AM, 20 FM, and 20 TV stations.
Then, in 1996, President Bill Clinton worked with Republicans in Congress to change that law so one media owner could own as many radio stations nationally as it could buy.
Huge media companies like Clear Channel (now iHeart media) had their purchase contracts signed the minute the ink was dry on the Act. In no time, every small, medium and large radio station was owned by just a handful of companies, companies which programmed the peoples' airwaves in no time flat with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, coast-to-coast, who then pummeled the President into impeachment.
Why did Independent Prosecutor Ken Starr ignore four prior investigations (United States Park Police and FBI and House and Senate committees) deeming that suicide was the cause of death of Clinton's longtime friend and Deputy White House Vince Foster, who was found dead in his car at Fort Marcy Park in 1993, killed by a single gunshot through his mouth? Because Rush and the rest were screeching about it on hundreds of radio stations nationwide. According to Brett Kavanaugh in 1999 --- he had provided legal cover for the investigation --- Starr was looking into "a lot conspiracy theories, a lot of controversy. He took the time and made the effort to turn over every stone, to find the truth."
The truth was, the right wing propaganda machine was unleashed, giving Starr political cover.
Starr gave Talk Radio a full three years to push the "Clintons are murderers" theory before releasing his conclusion that Foster had indeed shot himself. By then, the damage was done, and the Far Right today continues to spread those falsehoods over those same public airwaves.
But the Talkers kept finding new reasons to screech. Filegate! Filegate! Starr investigated, and after years, exonerated the Clintons. Travelgate! Travelgate! Starr investigated, and after years exonerated Bill Clinton.
Then came Paula Jones. David Brock wrote in Richard Mellon Scaife's American Spectator Magazine, a $1.7 million project intended to promote conspiracy theories against the Clintons, that a woman named "Paula" had once had a liaison with then Governor Clinton in a hotel room. Conservative lawyers and PR guru Susan Carpenter McMillan found her, and two days before the statute of limitations ran out, she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. (Judge Susan Webber Wright eventually threw the case out, finding it to have no merit.) But the talk radio onslaught continued.
Discovery in that case given to Ken Starr by Jones' attorneys led to Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who bragged to college friends she was going to Washington wearing her "Presidential kneepads," who told her erstwhile friend Linda Tripp she's had several affairs with married men, and who infamously showed President Bill Clinton her thong, saying, "Wanna play? I'll play."
But the story Talk Radio told was of a philandering President taking advantage of a young girl.
So Starr hauled Clinton in front of the Grand Jury, where he testified, "There is no sexual relationship with Miss Lewinsky." One semen stained dress later proved there had been such a relationship. The President defended his testimony statement by stating, "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is."
And the Talkers went nuts. Boom. Impeached.
At the time, and ever since, I spoke with Democrat after Democrat about reversing the one-sided media ownership rules that refused to provide We the People with any relevant facts or context about political issues (a law aided by Reagan's dismissal of the Fairness Doctrine which had, for decades, provided both sides an opportunity to be heard.) One after another, they told me it didn't matter, that Rush et al had an older audience which was dying off, and not to worry about it. I still did.
Fast forward to 2020, when the Hollywood Reporter interviewed Hillary Clinton about a documentary of her 2016 Presidential race, they asked her, "How can the left combat Fox News?" Her response: "We do have some well-off people who support Democratic candidates, there's no doubt about that, but they've never bought a TV station. They've never gobbled up radio stations."
Apparently the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State still does not understand that the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which her husband signed into law, literally prevented Democrats from buying stations! Once those stations were sold, they were gone.
She should also know that from 2005 to 2009, I made a documentary film, Broadcast Blues, which revealed that the entire midsection of these United States was then dominated by Right Wing rhetoric, by a factor of 10:1 Conservative to Liberal. Today, according to Jen Senko's documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad, Right Wing radio dominates by a factor of 10: .2. (yes, ten to point two.)
[Brad Friedman's 2016 BradCast interview with Jen Senko is here.]
And Nielsen research is finally confirming that Right Wing Talk Radio is the dominant media source of our time. How many people watch Fox News? 2.5 million in prime time.
How many listen to Right Wing Talk Radio? Talkers Magazine says more than 80 MILLION. Every day. Roughly the same number of Trump supporters.
Radio Propagandists on hundreds of radio stations nationwide tell 80 million people every day that Trump is a hero, that he does nothing wrong, that he is a victim, that the Democrats simply lie about him. Once upon a time, those stations would at least have been obligated to provide those 80 million people with a different point of view and revealed the countless lies told by this POTUS. But, for a generation, Democrats have refused to stand up for facts and truth.
Now the nation has suffered through another impeachment, one which has divided us in a way not seen since the Civil War. The division is driven by half-truths, lies and confusion intentionally broadcast over our airwaves with an intent to deceive for political gain. The deception worked, just as planned, and the radio deceiver-in-chief was just awarded the Medal of Freedom.
But do not blame Donald Trump; he is merely the beneficiary of a corrosive law the Democrats have willfully ignored. When will they acknowledge the real elephant in the room is not the GOP? It is a Democratic Party which unwittingly aided and abetted the propaganda machine, then turned blind eyes and closed ears to a medium that is destroying us from within. Open your eyes and especially your ears, Democrats, and take action now. Our Democracy is literally at stake.
Sue Wilson is an Emmy and AP award winning broadcast journalist turned media reform activist, director of the media reform documentary Broadcast Blues, and founder of the Media Action Center. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @sueblueswilson.