The "Fairness Doctrine"

"If we agree fairness is a goal, then we have to agree the industry will be fairer with a doctrine than without." --Larry King, host of CNN's Larry King Live in an article written for the Federal Communications Law Journal

What Is It?

According to Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR):

"The Fairness Doctrine has two components. First, and most importantly, it affirmatively requires that each broadcast licensee carry some coverage of controversial issues of public importance. This ensures that every broadcaster meets its duty to inform the electorate on public issues.

The better-known second prong of the doctrine requires reasonable balance in the coverage of these issues in a station's overall programming. The station has broad discretion on how to provide balanced coverage -- be it through news, talkshow discussions, guest editorials or other programming."

The Fairness Doctrine was enforced from 1949 through 1987, and compliance with it was a condition that broadcast licensees were required to comply with to receive and to renew their license. Over the years, a wide variety of organizations (energy, environmental, and health among others) used it to obtain reply time in ballot issue cases.

For a brief history of the politics and legal decisions affecting this regulation, see "Breeding a press of water carriers, or the "Age of Aquarius" - Part III: "Borking" the Fairness Doctrine" by James Higdon.

In the article this description is quoted from, FAIR cites one example of how this regulation could be implemented... for every three or four minutes of paid broadcast advertising advocating a particular cause, the opposing view would be allowed a minute or so to respond.

Why Is It No Longer Enforced?

The FCC stated: "We no longer believe that the Fairness Doctrine, as a matter of policy, serves the public interests. In making this determination, we do not question the interest of the listening and viewing public in obtaining access to diverse and antagonistic sources of information. Rather, we conclude that the Fairness Doctrine is no longer a necessary or appropriate means by which to effectuate this interest. We believe that the interest of the public in viewpoint diversity is fully served by the multiplicity of voices in the marketplace today and that the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of the doctrine unnecessarily restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters. Furthermore, we find that the Fairness Doctrine, in operation actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and in degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists."

In this statement, the FCC fails to acknowledge some basic facts: the airwaves, unlike print, or the Internet, have inherent limits on diversity and accessibility. In any one area, only a limited number of frequencies are available... so, even if you had the resources to do so, setting up a competing broadcast station next to "Hot Talk 560" on the AM radio dial, without acquiring a government license, would result in prosecution. Thus, if broadcasters have the right to refuse to air your views, it is quite possible for them to completely silence all opposing points of view. A situation which "liberal" radio listeners find all too familiar.

A review of conservative literature discussing the Fairness Doctrine attributes the explosive growth of right-wing talk radio to the elimination of this regulation. Freed from the unpleasant obligation of having even the slightest obligation to provide a balanced point of view (the "inhibition" mentioned by Ronald Reagan's FCC above), corporate America has embraced the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage with a vengance. This is what conservatives would like to portray as "an upsurge in public affairs programming and discussion of controversial issues" on the radio.

In actuality, the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine has had almost no effect in this area outside of right-wing talk radio. Research demonstrates "that there was not a mass effort by broadcasters to begin or cease editorializing after the Fairness Doctrine was set aside by the FCC in 1987". In fact, only two stations, out of 306 surveyed, began to broadcast editorials at that point.

According to Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), "Research demonstrates that news and public affairs substantially declined after termination of the Fairness Doctrine, contrary to broadcaster promises. What did increase were right wing talk shows and religious right ministries, now free to editorialize against their favorite demons without fear of contradiction."

Corporate America and the right-wing sound the alarm every time that the idea of restoring the Fairness Doctrine is raised: "It will be the death of talk radio." It will "end discussion of controversial issues... rather than risk having to provide equal time, broadcasters will simply not cover anything." Horsepucky, in my opinion - no sane manager would pull Rush Limbaugh off the air, just because they might have to provide an hour of "liberal" programming or some other opportunity for an opposing viewpoint to be heard. What conservatives and corporate America are really afraid of, is that some fire-breathing liberal or leftist (god-forbid) will prove to be economically viable, and put the lie to the proposition that "liberals aren't entertaining or interesting".

Why Should The "Fairness Doctrine" Be Restored?

Are you fed up with the "proliferation of extreme right-wing mono-dimensional political discourse monopolizing national airwaves with simplistic mantras and relentless character assassination?" asks Gerry Rempel, Democratic Party activist from Eugene, Oregon

The consolidation of media ownership into fewer and fewer hands, the potential for conflicts of interests, and the virtual exclusion of significant opposing viewpoints are good reasons to campaign for reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.

Without the leverage of the Fairness Doctrine, opposing and alternative viewpoints, even when willing and able to pay for the airtime, can and will be excluded from the airwaves.

Despite the hyperbolic tone of most commentary on the subject, the opponents of the Fairness Doctrine make valid points. The very broadness of discretion that the Federal Communications Commission (the body which issued and administered the Fairness Doctrine regulations) gave to broadcasters created a significant level of uncertainity which in some cases led to avoidance of controversy. In other cases, for fear of having to provide "free" airtime to opposing points of view, stations refused to carry political advertising. But the answer to these complaints is not abolition, but reform that corrects these problems. In a Federal Communications Law Journal article otherwise hostile to the Fairness Doctrine, Henry Geller makes the point that "The FCC, however, has never adopted objective, effective standards of public service for broadcasting. On the contrary, it has specifically rejected such an approach and deliberately followed vague standards." In other words, these rules have never really been given a chance to work effectively.

Conclusion

In another article about Hate Radio talk show host Bob Grant (whose racist rantings finally resulted in his show being driven off the air after African-American churchs launched a boycott of his advertisers), FAIR says:

"The best answer to hate speech is not suppression, but more speech. And the best answer to hate radio is diverse programs offering opposing views. Unfortunately, since the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine seven years ago, many station managers don't feel the need to offer even the semblance of balancing perspectives."

It's time to restore the Fairness Doctrine, and restore some small semblance of balance to the airwaves. Over 60% of the American public, when surveyed in 1993, supported restoration of the Fairness Doctrine and the concept of equal time for opposing views. Exercise your right to freedom of speech, and tell Savage's advertisers and corporate sponsors that you're tired of being bombarded by one-sided hate radio rants. Sign the petition to "Boycott Savage Nation Advertisers".

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