If you’re old enough to remember the days when freak shows were in carnivals and not daytime television, you may know about the barker and the shill. These were carnival employees who both worked to entice customers into entering the mysterious realm of the sideshow, only, their methods were very different. The barker – the correct terminology is the “talker” – was a P.T. Barnum-like character, a bold salesman who sang the praises of the exhibits. Although he was given to the hyperbole of marketing, he made no bones about his agenda: He wanted your business.
The shill was a very different animal. His job was to stand amidst the crowd and pose as one of their number; he would then feign awe as he claimed to have seen the show and that it was truly a jaw-dropping experience. He was trading on his illusion of impartiality, knowing it lent him a capacity to convince that eluded the talker with his obvious agenda.
This occurs to me when I ponder the attempt to resurrect the “Fairness Doctrine” by politicians such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich and avowedly socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. For those of you not acquainted with this proposal, it harks back to a federal regulation in place from 1949 to 1987. Ostensibly it was designed to ensure “fairness” in broadcasting, mandating that if radio and TV stations air controversial viewpoints, they must provide equal time for the “other side.”
Now, as many have pointed out, this effort is motivated by a desire to stifle conservative commentary. After all, it isn’t lost on the radical left that the dumping of this doctrine in 1987 directly coincided with the rise of conservative talk radio. Freed from the threat of hefty government fines, stations were finally able to formulate programs based on market forces and not government regulation. Thus did Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and many others give voice to the usually silent majority.
Of course, many may wonder why I’d take issue with fairness. Shouldn’t we give the “other side” its day in court, one may ask?
The problem is that this regulation would be applied to talk radio but not arenas dominated by liberal thought - a perfect example being the ever-present mainstream media (which presents the “other side”). This is because talk show hosts trade in red meat commentary, whereas the mainstream press is more subtle in its opinion-making.