Yet there is another element — a systemic one — that helps explain why Italy and the U.S. are the only major democracies in which a billionaire circus has raised its tent: the almost total deregulation of broadcast media. Berlusconi managed through political connections (with evidence of massive bribery) to acquire a virtual monopoly of private television in the 1970s. He introduced highly partisan news programs, giving TV shows to such on-air bullies as Vittorio Sgarbi and Paolo Liguori, who peddled conspiracy theories like Glenn Beck and shouted down political opponents in styles similar to Bill O’Reilly. In both Italy and the U.S., you have major networks that are, in essence, the media arm of one of the country’s main political parties. It’s important to realize, however, that the transformation of the media landscapes of both Italy and the U.S. did not simply happen, but were the result, in part, of political decisions.
About 30 years ago, the Federal Communications Commission had quaint rules called the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Doctrine. They were seen as a way of guaranteeing that private license holders operated at least partly in the public interest and guaranteed a degree of pluralism of views. These rules made a certain amount of sense in an analog age in which the number of frequencies was limited. Television (and television news) was dominated by the big three networks, each of which competed for as much of the total market as it could get. It made no sense for any of them to create an overtly partisan newscast that would alienate Republican or Democratic viewers. This was hardly a golden age — broadcast news was arguably dull, centrist, and establishmentarian — but there were basic rules of civility and a certain respect for factual accuracy.
With the advent of cable television in the 1970s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, this all changed. President Reagan’s FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, insisted that television was no different than any other commercial appliance — “a toaster with pictures,” he called it. The technological changes in the field — the emergence of cable — reinforced this position. With dozens and eventually hundreds of channels, it was felt, the old rules of fairness and balance were passé, because the sheer number of channels would ensure pluralism. What this view failed to appreciate was that it didn’t correspond with the way people actually consume news: They do not watch multiple points of view, switching frequently between PBS, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. Instead, each group seeks out the news that fits its own ideological assumptions and stays there.
In 1987, Fowler eliminated the Fairness Doctrine. The next year, Rush Limbaugh created his nationally syndicated radio program. Fox News, headed by former Republican Party operative Roger Ailes, began operating in 1996.