August 4, 1987: The Federal Communications Commission repeals the “Fairness Doctrine.” Instituted in 1949, the FCC implemented the policy as hundreds of applications were submitted for radio stations amid limited frequencies. The FCC was worried that these stations could be used as mouthpieces for a single point of view, so the Fairness Doctrine required that all broadcasters represent multiple perspectives on issues and stories. The policy was further cemented during the Supreme Court hearing of Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. vs FCC, which concerned a station in Pennsylvania that aired a program called “Christian Crusade” by Reverend Billy James Hargis. During the program, Hargis talked about “Barry Goldwater: Extremist of the Right” and said that author Fred J. Cook had written the book as part of a smear campaign against Barry Goldwater, who had just lost the 1964 presidential election to Lyndon B. Johnson. Hargis further accused Cook of having been fired from a newspaper after making false charges against city officials, that he later worked for a newspaper with Communist ties and that he defended Alger Hiss, who was released from prison ten years earlier following a conviction of perjury in connection with allegations about his Communist affiliations. Cook heard that he had been attacked, and asked the station for time to give his reply. The station refused, and in the law suit which followed, the Supreme Court upheld Cook’s right to reply under the FCC Fairness Doctrine.
One side effect of the policy, which the FCC perhaps had not anticipated, was that journalists backed away from covering controversial news items altogether because they believed the doctrine imposed on their decisions to balance their reporting as they saw fit. In 1987, under President Reagan, with many more channels and broadcast options available than there were in 1949, the FCC could no longer make the argument that they were trying to balance a limited airspace for news and views, and the FCC itself dissolved the doctrine. In an interesting side note, the anniversary of the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal coincides neatly with another repeal of FCC policy–the “Indecency Policy” which barred the use of fleeting expletives on radio and television. Like the Fairness Doctrine, the unintended side effect of the Indecency Policy was that media outlets backed away from presenting material which included profanity, lest they be fined millions of dollars. Although a federal appeals court decided that the law was too vague and inhibited freedom of speech, the ruling may also follow in the footsteps of the Fairness Doctrine, all the way to the Supreme Court.
August 17, 1908: The first full-length animated film, “Fantasmagorie” premieres in Paris. Artist Emile Cohl brought black-and-white drawings to life by photographing black line drawings on white paper, then reversing the negatives so that the drawings appeared to have been done on a chalkboard. Cohl even used (his?) actual hands to interact with the drawings. Lasting just over a minute, “Fantasmagorie” has no coherent storyline, but it nonetheless amazed audiences, and marked the dawn of a new medium of limitless possibilities.
August 18, 1958: Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” is published in the United States. Having first appeared in Paris in 1955, the story of the 12-year-old nymphet and the stepfather who loved her was famous before it even appeared in the US, but in its time was received with mixed reviews. New York Times book critic Orville Prescott called it “repulsive” and “dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion.” However, Charles Rolo of Atlantic Monthly called it “wild, fantastic, wonderfully imaginative” and :one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read.” Regardless, “Lolita” remains a powerful force in popular culture and media, yielding two feature films, a book about reading it and is frequently a euphemism for a particular type of young girl as well as a mode of Japanese fashion. It may always be controversial, but it seems that it will also always be influential.