Question: Write an Essay on The Fairness Doctrine.
Discuss its origins and its demise
The Fairness Doctrine originates from a premise that radio broadcasters should not just present one side of any controversial issue. The doctrine was not formalized until 1941, but the FCC did go ahead and revoke the licenses of several licenses for being ‘unfair’ in the way they presented controversial issues (Sandman et al. 1972). Sandman records that there was even a radio station that lost its license just for running editorials. When the Fairness Doctrine was formalized in 1941, these are the major principles that were crystallized, as recorded by Sandman (1972):
For one, the Fairness Doctrine required that radio broadcasters were duty bound to allocate ‘reasonable’ broadcast time to ‘controversial’ issues (Sandman et al. 1972). The presentation of such ‘controversial issues’ was also required to be from ‘all sides.’
Editorializing of any issue while encouraged had to be balanced with regard to public controversies (Sandman et al. 1972). Further, it was the duty of the radio broadcasters to actively seek out opposing views on the issues they covered in their content.
Any individual or group that was adversely mentioned in broadcasting was entitled to an opportunity to reply (Sandman et al. 1972).
The fifth requirement of the Fairness Doctrine was that anyone who issued a reply to an earlier broadcast must not have to pay for the airtime (Sandman et al. 1972).
The reaction of radio broadcasters to this rule was mainly one of fear. Broadcasters feared losing revenue and therefore they opted to stop editorials and other discussions of controversial issues (Sandman et al. 1972). The FCC may not have predicted t his reaction. Broadcasters figured they could easily avoid any accusations of being biased or one sided by just not discussing anything of importance.
It was later decided that the FCC had not made enough efforts to assess the potential efficiency of the Fairness Doctrine before passing it. However, this decision came much later in 1987 according Napoli (2008). Even the Supreme Court in 1969 did not make much of the possibility that the Fairness Doctrine could cause more harm than good (Napoli, 2008).
The FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 based on findings of the 1985 Fairness Report which evaluated in detail the effects of the Fairness Doctrine.
Arguments for the Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness Doctrine would probably offer a helping hand to Interest Groups and minorities who probably would have had a difficult time getting their message heard otherwise (Sandman et al. 1972).
Conservative talk is overwhelmingly overrepresented in talk radio (CAP, 2007) and the Fairness Doctrine – perhaps in a more refined form – may help to correct this imbalance. This imbalance means that recent discussions about the possibility of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine have inspired hope among many Democrats, and anxiety among many Conservatives, (Hale and Philips 2011)
Many legal experts say that the Fairness Doctrine is still in place (CAP, 2007). They argue that the FCC only announced that it would no longer enforce the Fairness Doctrine, and that the Supreme Court has never overruled its earlier rulings.
In the original Communications Act of 1934, the FCC is mandated to require that broadcasters make the purchase of airtime available to political candidates in equal measure (CAP, 2007). These and many other regulations show that the Fairness Doctrine in many ways still exists – at least on paper.
Arguments against the Fairness Doctrine
The Fairness Doctrine as it has been pointed out numerous times is unconstitutional. It actually amounts to reverse censorship, where instead of media owners being forced not to air certain content, they are forced to air certain content.
The Fairness Doctrine has many inherent weaknesses. For one, there is the problem of how to decide – and indeed who decides – whether an issue is ‘controversial’ or not (Sandman et al. 1972).
The Fairness Doctrine was done away with in 1987 primarily because it failed to achieve its original purpose (Napoli, 2008). Instead of encouraging broadcasters to cover public interest issues more exhaustively, it led most of them to avoid any issue that may be controversial. This can still happen today if the Fairness Doctrine was revamped. No broadcaster would want to lose revenue because they are compelled to award free airtime to a representative of an opposing view.
A second reason why the Fairness Doctrine was repealed and which still holds true today is that the media environment no longer necessitates any such legislation, records Napoli (2008). In other words, there are enough radio stations to go around and anyone who feels left out can begin their own broadcasts.
The report from the Centre for American Progress released in 2007 suggests that perhaps the cause of the imbalance in the content of political talk radio may not necessarily be a matter of demand and supply but could be the result of skewed ownership patterns. It posits the restoration of ownership caps on a local and national level as a possible solution.
If you served in Congress, or as an FCC Commissioner, how would you approach the issue?
The FCC cannot bring back the Fairness Doctrine because at the moment there is a lack of adequate information to support the idea that such a move would achieve the goal it failed to achieve for so many years. According to Napoli (2008) the justice system has also evolved since the ‘60s and the Supreme Court is highly unwilling to simply defer such important decisions to the FCC, preferring to scrutinize the case for or against any argument and make a decision.
Perhaps the FCC and Congress can look into other ways of solving the problem of diversity of views. Perhaps look into ways of increasing diversity in media ownership.
Napoli, Philip M. Paradoxes of Media Policy Analysis: Implications for Public Interest Media Regulation. Paper 17 McGannon Center Working Paper Series, 2008. Available from: http://fordham.bepress.com/mcgannon_working_papers/17
Hale, R Trevor and James C. Philips. The Fairness Doctrine in Light of Hostile Media Perception. CommLaw Conspectus (2011): 395-422
Sandman P, Rubin David and Sachsman. Media: An Introductory Analysis of American Mass Communications. US: Prentice Hall College, 1972
The Center for American Progress and Free Press. The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio. US: CAP, 2007