The Fairness Doctrine - Anybody Remember It?
Turns out - we weren't adult enough to be trusted.
As someone who earned a degree in journalism more than thirty-five years ago, I held the concept of the Fairness Doctrine with the same reverence a doctor holds his Hippocratic Oath. If you are going to write for the public airways and column inches, you are obliged to give equal opportunity to both sides of every issue.
I launched this effort on Hub Pages for the purposes of making my fellow hubbers aware of the inexhaustible value of this doctrine and what was lost when it was set aside at the hands of powerful forces for evil in the highest realms of our government. I endeavored to find research, historical records, and documentation in support of my closely held conviction. And in the process, I changed my mind.
The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 as a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requiring broadcast license holders to present controversial issues in a way equitable to both sides of the issue. The Fairness Doctrine is not the same regulation as the Equal Time rule, which only deals with giving political candidates the same amount of time on the public airways – unless they are paying for it. A challenge on First Amendment grounds, Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1969. The Court unanimously upheld the FCC's right to enforce the Fairness Doctrine where channels were limited, but the FCC was not obliged to enforce it. The courts decided the scarcity of the airways in 1969 limited the opportunity for access to the airwaves, and created a need for the Doctrine. And while the airways were owned by the government and merely leased to broadcasters, the FCC had the right to regulate news content and the responsibility to ensure fairness.
In the mid-1980s under the Reagan Administration’s policies of deregulation, the FCC began to repeal parts of the Fairness Doctrine, stating the doctrine hurt the public interest and violated free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In the spring of 1987, both houses of Congress voted to change the doctrine into a law the FCC would have to enforce. But President Reagan, committed to keeping government out of the affairs of business, vetoed the legislation. There were insufficient votes to override the veto. Members of Congress tried again during the administration of Bush II, but again, it met with an un-override-able veto.
In August 1987, the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4-0 vote. They argued the need for it no longer existed because of the many media outlets in the marketplace. There was a voice for each and every side of a controversial issue. The listener had every opportunity to change the channel if he or she didn’t agree with the broadcaster or just wanted to hear another point of view.
So here’s my problem today. Too many people don’t. They not only don’t want to hear another point of view, they want anyone who doesn’t see things the way they do to be silenced, sequestered, or shot. They could not be less interested in having their intelligence challenged or their ideas questioned. And I know how they feel. That’s how I felt about the Fairness Doctrine. I wanted people to be forced to open their minds and be willing to at least hear views other than their own. It was like taking Castor oil. It’s good for you whether you like it or not. In fact, the more you don’t like it, the better it probably is for you.
I felt so strongly the American people needed this safety net for their own good. The radio and television airways today are too ready a bully pulpit for too many people who are diametrically opposed to my position on too many issues. The FCC may have been right about “the proliferation of cable television, multiple channels within cable, public-access channels, and the Internet that have eroded the limited airways argument, since there are plenty of places for ordinary individuals to make public comments on controversial issues at low or no cost.” Exactly my problem. There are too many Bozos out there with a microphone and an audience spouting off opinions I don’t agree with! Where, oh where, is somebody – anybody – saying something on the radio or television or nowadays even the Internet that I want to hear?
Well, James Quello, an FCC chairman in the 1990s may have said it best. "The fairness doctrine doesn't belong in a country that is dedicated to freedom of the press and freedom of speech." When the fairness doctrine was first conceived, only 2,881 radio and 98 television stations existed. By 1960, there were 4,309 radio and 569 television stations. By 1989, these numbers grew to over 10,000 radio stations and close to 1,400 television stations. The number of radios in use jumped from 85.2 million in 1950 to 527.4 million by 1988, and televisions in use went from 4 million to 175.5 million during that period. ("The Fairness Doctrine," National Association of Broadcasters, Backgrounder (1989).)
Turned out, the result of the fairness doctrine in many cases was to stifle the growth of disseminating views and, in effect, make free speech less free. This is exactly what led the FCC to repeal the rule in 1987. FCC officials found that the doctrine "had the net effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, the discussion of controversial topics of public importance," and therefore was in violation of constitutional principles. ("FCC Ends Enforcement of Fairness Doctrine," Federal Communications Commission News, Report No. MM-263, August 4, 1987.) Even the Democratic New York Governor Mario Cuomo has argued that, "Precisely because radio and TV have become our principal sources of news and information, we should accord broadcasters the utmost freedom in order to insure a truly free press." (Mario Cuomo, "The Unfairness Doctrine," The New York Times, September 20, 1993, p. A19.)
A truly free press. I didn’t swear an oath to that effect in order to get my bachelors in journalism, but isn’t that what it really comes down to in its most unbiased form? Come one, come all. Say what you want and let the marketplace decide. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.
America, it’s up to you to listen to all sides, many sides, or just one side. It’s your choice. There is no one to make you listen if you don’t want to - any more. The only entity that holds a fairness doctrine today is you.
But I've changed my mind back to my original conviction because of what that change hath wrought.
Since the end of the administration of Bush, the Younger, the cast of characters in the Grand Old Party have been varied and colorful. What they also have been is ridiculous. Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Mitt Romney, now Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and finally Donald Trump.
What has also emerged is conservative talk radio. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Mean. Ugly. Insulting. Telling folks only the facts they like and/or agree with. Giving them no reason to listen to any other point of view.
And now brand television news. Pick the flavor you like and stick with it - not only ignorantly - but proudly. How many people describe themselves as a "faithful viewer of FOX news"? Where has that taken us? To 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017.
People are talking themselves hoarse wondering how the Hell we elected president an eight-year-old who will have to be told what city bus runs up to the hill. (That's where Congress is from the White House.) This. This is how. We're like children whose parents took the training wheels of the bicycle before we were ready. Before we were old enough to be responsible with the freedom we were being given.
The Fairness Doctrine. Turned out we needed it. But we will never get it back.