After I ran the story of the history of the FCC and the Fairness Doctrine, I received an e-mail from Robert Manewith, a friend and former co-worker, who had a 37 year career at WGN radio and TV. Manewith was also press secretary to former Illinois Congressman Michael Patrick Flanagan Below, written in the first person tense, is his fascinating e-mail of how Tribune Broadcasting was effected by a particular FCC ruling.
You should have gone back one step to the Mayflower decision of 1941. At least one broadcaster, the owner of the Mayflower Broadcasting Company, “used” his airwaves to broadcast editorial opinion without airing contrasting viewpoints or offering others an opportunity to do so. The Mayflower decision prohibited the broadcasting of editorials.
Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission, (1969) changed that. Specifically, it said, editorial presentations provided one way of meeting a broadcaster’s obligation to air programming dealing with controversial issues, so long as opportunities to reply were provided. Here’s where I come into the picture on a personal level.
The management of the Chicago Tribune — for the most part at that time concurrent with the management of Tribune Company — didn’t not want anyone “in the family” competing with it on editorial positions. The exception was the former Hearst paper, the Chicago American, which the company purchased around the time of Col. McCormick’s passing.
Ward Quaal, running the WGN stations at the time and who was very active on the national broadcast scene, wanted to do editorials. And Red Lion provided him the weapon, which I cited above. Here comes the personal part and the “however…”
Because the decision said, [paraphrase] one of the ways a broadcaster can fulfill its obligations is be broadcasting editorials and contrasting viewpoints, Quaal was able to convince the régime at Tribune Company to allow the stations to editorialize. However, there was another issue, a “monopoly of voice.”
The FCC had adopted cross-ownership rules. Initially, an entity could own one AM, one FM and one TV station in the market, but not a major newspaper and newspapers were barred from owning broadcast entities in their own market. Quaal lobbied successfully for a waiver, one that still exists today.
Then there was the complication. Tribune Company had long ago forsaken FM, turning in the license for WGNB. But, in either a will or dying declaration, Bernard Jacobs, who with his wife (Rita Jacobs Willens) owned WFMT, wanted the station to go to WGN because he felt Quaal would maintain the standards he had established.
So here we have two scenarios on stage. “Friends of WFMT” organized and went into US District Court to block the sale and WGN was going to start editorializing. One of the issues that might be raised, the Tribune lawyers surmised, was another editorial voice echoing Mother Tribune.
You may have heard of Don Reuben. He was a brilliant attorney, a major partner at Kirkland & Ellis (
Kirkland and Ellis originally was known as , Ellis, Hodson, Chafetz, Masters and McCormick, the colonel of the same name being a founding partner. ) and the Tribune Company attorney. He had a plan. Select an editorial director who could be instructed to be independent of the Chicago Tribune and to never read the editorial page. In theory, if the editorial director were called to testify in the WFMT case, he/she could say, in all honesty, that he/she didn’t know what the Tribune’s editorial policies were because he/she didn’t read the Tribune editorial page. The capper was to pick a liberal Jewish Democrat to do the job. Kirkland
In a practical sense, the Fairness Doctrine ceased to exist in 1986. We were at a convention of broadcast editorialists and the Reagan administration’s decision was announced at a luncheon. As an anticipated result, almost two-thirds of the stations that were broadcasting editorials at the time stopped doing so within a year. Some others carried on a little longer. WGN-TV stopped when the radio station, me included, moved back to
in 1986 and WGN Radio stopped around 1990 after I had been away from my desk for several weeks following surgery. By that time, to compensate for the loss of production on the TV side, I had been given a few other portfolios over the years, including editing and publishing a fan magazine, maintaining the “topics of public discussion” files for the FCC and reporting on music usage for ASCAP and BMI. Tribune Tower
And that’s how, when we finally got everything in order to do editorials, I shifted from Manger of News (AM & TV) to Editorial Director of both stations. I once computed that over the years, I had written 4,000+ editorials. We had product seven days a week and usually one of those days was a rebuttal.
As to WFMT, we were not allowed to keep the license and donated it (maybe for $1) to WTTW, which owns it today and which has kept it the station Bernie Jacobs wanted it to be.
As John Nesbitt used to say when he concluded his movie short subjects, “And so the story goes…”