John Snow is a historically important person that you have probably never heard of.
Snow was a Victorian-era physician who was raised up in a world in which everyone believed that disease was caused by miasma or "bad air."
And so, when a cholera epidemic swept through London in 1854, the general consensus was that there was not much to be done about it other than to pray, keep the windows closed, and perhaps burn a few incense cones.
Snow did something different, however: he talked to local residents in his area and mapped out where they lived. If anyone in a family came down with cholera, he put a little dot on a street map.
Soon enough, a pattern became clear -- people coming down sick were heavily concentrated in a certain area. The commonality, Snow suspected, was that they all drew water from a water pump situated on Broad Street.
After explaining his thesis to a local council, Snow was given permission to knock the handle off the water pump, and the cholera epidemic quickly abated. This was, for all practical purposes, the beginning of scientific epidemiology.
Why do I bring this story up?
Simple: America has come down with a new disease, and it is every bit as pernicious and debilitating as cholera.
It is the disease of stupidity and ignorance.
Some people still believe in the miasma theory when it comes to this disease.
No less an authority than Alan Greenspan once talked of "irrational exuberance" in the stock market. Where did it come from, he wondered, his face down in a book, the television off.
Today, with all our jobs exported to China, the rich paying less in taxes than ever before, and the nation perpetually teetering on the edge of war, millions of other Americans are left scratching their head wondering what went wrong.
How did we end up in this mess? Where was the point of infection?
Now I am no John Snow, but I have spent the last 30 years in Washington, D.C. studying stupid.
And I have a theory.
The pump, in this case, is an obscure regulation in an obscure federal agency.
It does not look like much, but like the John Snow's pump handle, it is directly linked to a public utility.
The utility is television and radio, and the pump handle is the Fairness Doctrine.
Eh? The Fairness Doctrine? What the hell am I on about?
Let me explain.
The Fairness Doctrine was a Federal Communications Commission policy, first embraced in 1949, which said that broadcasters had to devote a portion of their daily airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest and present contrasting views on those subjects.
The Fairness Doctrine gave us folks like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid.
In 1987, however, the Reagan Administration ordered the Federal Communications Commission to abolish the Fairness Doctrine because it violated their notion of the First Amendment.
Yes, that's right: The forced teaching of creation science and school prayer did not violate their notion of the First Amendment, but putting "fair and balanced" news on radio and television did. Go figure.
Why was the Fairness Doctrine put in at all?
The clue can be found in the year -- 1949. This was legislation that passed pretty quickly after World War II.
The idea here was a simple one: Propaganda was a disease, and the obvious antidote was to make sure extremist politicians could never colonize the airwaves.
But it was always understood that extremist politicians were not the only threat. After all, free speech has never been free.
Have you ever shelled out money for a full-page ad in a big city daily? Have you ever bought 20 or 30 television spots? Ever purchased drive time radio for a week in five middle-of-the-road stations operating in seven cities? I have, and it ain't cheap!
Newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks are owned by millionaires and billionaires, and the folks who pay the bills tend to be massive corporations whose bottom line is always the bottom line.
You want to know why tobacco, booze, crappy car manufacturers, price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, and incompetent financial service companies have been given such a long and free ride by the media? Simple: look who pays the bills.
To be clear, there are no meetings between the heads of General Motors and CBS in which they plot to sell us crappy gas-guzzlers.
The sad part of this story is that those meetings don't have to occur; everyone understands how it goes. And so the head of CBS is aware, to the penny, how much his company depends on General Motors and pharmaceutical advertising. Beer ads and Merrill Lynch ads are factored into the matrix as well.
On the other side of the coin, the head of GM understands that radio and TV stations need content, and so he and other big business interests in pharmaceutical companies, stock brokerage houses, credit card companies, and agricultural and chemical interests reach out to help fund lawyers, lobbyists, analysts, university chairs, and talking heads from trade associations and think tanks.
These folks are always available for comment and they all appear sensible, even as they slowly move the ball in the direction of their corporate masters.
Against this corporate and political tide once stood a little scrap of paper: the Fairness Doctrine.
All it said was that news had to be fair and balanced.
It did not seem like much in 1987, and so when right-wing ideologues pushed to have it pulled from the rules, it did not seem like a big deal.
First Amendment? Freedom of Speech? Hell yeah! We don't need some scrap of paper limiting what we can say on TV and radio. Fair and balanced? F*ck that!
No one thought too much about how odd it was that the same people who espoused First Amendment reasons to scrap the Fairness Doctrine were the same people who wanted to make it a constitutional crime to burn an American flag made in China in order to protest an unjust war.
And so the Fairness Doctrine was tossed onto the scrap heap of history, and in short order we had Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Fox News and the paid shills at CNBC.
These folks were followed up more by right-wing radio and TV hosts in the form of Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly.
Right wing Christians then heaped on in the form of Hugh Hewitt and Bob Grant, followed by a slow trickle of left-wing radio and television voices, in the form of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Al Franken.
And what disappeared?
What disappeared was good old fashioned "just the facts ma'am journalism." There is less and less of that every day.
It turned out that putting blathering idiots on talk radio and TV was pretty cheap as compared to hiring investigative reporters and sending film crews around the world to gather the news.
And so, beginning in 1987, a sea-change occurred in the kind of information that began flowing into our living rooms and cars.
Where once we had rational discourse and a clear presentation of facts, we now had paid apologists for corporate excess whose central message was that greed was good, and that there was nothing wrong with America that another capital gains tax cut could not fix.
What America needed, we were told, was less bank regulation.
National heath care? That was creeping socialism.
Social Security? That was a scam -- the whole system was going to go broke unless we privatized it and put it all into the Stock Market right now.
Energy crisis? Relax about that! Oil was cheaper now that it was 15 years ago, and if they would only allow us to drill in Alaska, we would have oil without meter forever. Let the free market take care of it. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler know what they are doing!
Unions? They are nothing but greedy, lazy workers managed by corrupt labor bosses intent on sucking America dry. You want to help American workers? Here's how you do it: buy more Chinese-made stuff at WalMart. It's about time American workers learned to suck it up and compete head to head with the Chinese. If they can make plastic trash cans for $1 a unit over there, how come we can't? If we buy more stuff from China, American workers and companies will feel the heat and see the light.
And, as time went on, all of this took on the appearance of truth.
This was the new reality.
Fact faded from the mind. The landscape had changed, and now no one remembered what the old landscape looked like.
Our forests were different 100 years ago? Chestnuts trees? What? Who knew?
Tell me about the chestnuts trees grandpa ... and tell me about facts too. What are those?
How did we lose the Chestnut trees? It was a miasma. There is nothing to be done about it other than to bury the dead forest, close the windows and light some incense.
What killed off Walter Cronkite and the steady voice of the evening news? It was a miasma. There is nothing to be done about it other than to bury the old news anchors, close the windows and light some incense.
And what happened to the American economy? Where did it go? It was a miasma. There is nothing to be done about it other than to bury the closed factories, close the windows and light some incense.
The Fairness Doctrine? That old thing? That has nothing to do with the problem. That's about talk.
Talking is not what brought down the American economy. Talking is as harmless as water.
Now drink up, and let's turn on Fox News and see what's new.
They're fair and balanced -- they tell us so right in their ads!