The Fairness Doctrine

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History

The Radio Act of 1927 required that the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), the forerunner of the FCC, grant broadcasting licenses in such a manner as to ensure that licensees served the “public convenience, interest or necessity." To enforce this Congressional mandate, the FRC in 1928 created a policy that would become known as the Fairness Doctrine, which called for broadcasters to show “due regard for the opinions of others."

The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted that policy in 1949 as a formal rule by stating that broadcast station licensees were "public trustees" of the airwaves and had the obligation to offer to present contrasting viewpoints on matters of public importance. The FCC later held that licensees were also obligated to actively seek issues of community importance and broadcast programming addressing those issues.

In 1959 Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to make the Fairness Doctrine law, rewriting Chapter 315(a) to read: “A broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance."

In 1969, the United States Supreme Court upheld the doctrine’s constitutionality in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC. The court held, "In view of the scarcity of broadcast frequencies, the Government's role in allocating those frequencies, and the legitimate claims of those unable without governmental assistance to gain access to those frequencies for expression of their views, we hold the regulations and [395 U.S. 367, 401] ruling at issue here are both authorized by statute and constitutional."

With the government deregulation sweep and the beginning of mass media mergers during the Reagan Administration of the 1980s, the FCC dissolved the Fairness Doctrine.

The new Chairman of the FCC, Mark Fowler, appointed by President Reagan, publicly avowed to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine. Fowler stated, "The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants." [Television is] "just another appliance - it's a toaster with pictures." (Mark S. Fowler, as interviewed in Reason magazine, 1 Nov 1981).

In Meredith Corp. v. FCC (1987), the courts declared that the Doctrine was not mandated by Congress and remanded the issue back to the FCC to determine whether the Doctrine was constitutional and in the public interest. The FCC repealed the Doctrine in August 1987.

However, before the FCC's action, in the spring of 1987, Congress voted to enact the Fairness Doctrine as law--a statutory fairness doctrine which the FCC would have to enforce. President Reagan vetoed the bill. With insufficient votes to override the veto, the bill died.

Congressional efforts to enact the Doctrine into law took place again during the George H.W. Bush administration. President Bush vetoed the bill and it failed again.

How the Fairness Doctrine worked

Commonly if an individual or citizens group complained to a station about imbalance, the station would set aside time for an on-air response for the omitted perspective. The doctrine neither required that each program be internally balanced nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view.

Views for and against the Fairness Doctrine

We no longer believe that the Fairness Doctrine, as a matter of policy, serves the public interests.

--1983 statement by FCC Chairman Mark Fowler

I've always thought that it was unfortunate when Mark Fowler, President Reagan's FCC chairman, came into office and virtually eliminated the oversight process on behalf of the public interest. The conventional wisdom is wrong - we need more regulation, not less.

--Barry Diller, broadcast executive who helped to build Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV network, at the National Association of Broadcasting address, April 7, 2003.

Neither public service programming nor the Fairness Doctrine were a substitute for a citizen's right to speak. But they were something....Licensees used to have to cover local controversies with a range of views. Not all. Not given individuals. Not 'equal time.' Not specified content. And not within each program. Just some minimal balance. Now it's gone. The FCC repealed it. Can you imagine a government agency coming out flat footed in opposition to 'fairness'? Well, the FCC did it.

--Nicholas Johnson, Forum on Media Concentration, 9 Dec 2004, St. Paul, MN.

We don't give away trees to newspaper publishers. Why should we give away more airwaves to broadcasters? The airwaves are a natural resource. They do not belong to the broadcasters, phone companies or any other industry. They belong to the American people.

--Republican Senator Bob Dole, in a March 27, 1997 opinion column.

Any restraint placed on broadcasters' free speech rights must be a reasonable means to further our public interest goals. The federal court opinions specifically tell me that any restrictions we place on ownership must be based on concrete evidence - not on fear and speculation about hypothetical media monopolies intent on exercising some sort of Vulcan mind control on the American people.

--Statement of Kathleen Abernathy, Republican FCC commissioner, June 2, 2003.

References

The Fairness Doctrine: How We Lost it, and Why We Need it Back by Steve Rendall [1]

The Museum of Broadcast Communications [2]

Iowans for Better Local Television [3]

The Public Interest Standard in Television Broadcasting, www.benton.org [4]