The Death of the Fairness Doctrine
“Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex.” ~David Frum, Former speech writer for G.W. Bush, November 9, 2012.
A few Fridays ago I listened to four different talk shows (featuring both local and national personalities) on the same station for varying points of view and trending topics in politics. By the end of nearly 12 hours of talk radio, I admit I had had ENOUGH– enough to make me never want to hear talk radio again. I heard more catty name-calling in a 15-minute span than I ever heard in a whole hour of the TV drama “Dynasty” that my mother used to watch when I was younger. I literally have heard more civility and less name calling in conversations among Pre-K students than I heard on all four shows combined. Aside from being absolutely appalled by tasteless men’s observations, comments, attitudes & opinions, I had a volcanic ulcer in the pit of my stomach and a headache the size of Mt. Rushmore. Between the talk show hosts’ half-truths, outright lies and the amount of misinformation they were casually spewing and the campaign commercials attacking candidates, I was concerned with how such casual and untrue references might affect a voter who is not normally attentive to certain issues during elections. I took my rage to Facebook and I commented that “I choose to educate myself on things that I don’t like or understand. I don’t generally watch or listen to these talk shows and the amount of misinformation was very disheartening.” This post sparked a very spirited conversation about many things: The 2012 Presidential & Congressional elections, conservative talk radio, biased media, rude radio heads with seemingly no common sense, the different political platforms, lack of honesty and truth in all of the campaigns and what media channels should and should not be considered actual “news”.
If you think you have noticed a surge of conservative talk radio since the turn of the century, it is not your imagination– you have. Do we have President Reagan to thank for Rush Limbaugh and others? A very short answer to that question is yes.
In 1949 the Federal Communication Commission, better known as the FCC, introduced a policy called the “Fairness Doctrine” that required all three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) to present controversial issues of public importance in a “fair, honest and equitable way.” The policy was created out of concern that broadcasting licenses are limited by a finite number of available frequencies; therefore, as trustees of scarce public resources, licensees accept public interest obligations in exchange for exclusive use of public airwaves. It is important to note that cable television channels are excluded because they are a privately owned infrastructure. Born out of the FCC’s 1949 broadcasting regulation were two corollary rules that remained in practice from 1967 until 2000. The first was the “Personal Attack Rule” in which stations had to notify the person or groups being “attacked” within one week, send them the show’s transcripts of what was said and offer the opportunity for them to respond to the attack on-air. The second was the “Political Editorial Rule” which was applied when a station broadcast editorials endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. It also stipulated that the unendorsed candidates be notified and be given a reasonable opportunity to respond. The Fairness Doctrine was amended into law in 1959 via the Communications Act of 1934.
Throughout its short history, the Fairness Doctrine had long been opposed by conservatives and libertarians with their view that the Fairness Doctrine was an attack on the First Amendment right to free speech. In the 1969 Red Lion Broadcasting Company vs. FCC case, the US Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to enforce the Fairness Doctrine in areas where channels were limited. In that case, Red Lion Broadcasting declared that having to abide by their broadcasting license agreement with the FCC for the “Personal Attack Rule” and the “Equal Time Rule,” their journalists’ right to free speech was infringed upon and charged that the government was asserting editorial control. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC’s regulation and issued this statement: “The Supreme Court unanimously found the Fairness Doctrine advances First Amendment values. It safeguards the public’s right to be informed on issues affecting our democracy, while also balancing broadcasters’ rights to the broadcast possible editorial discretion.”
The 1980s brought the Reagan Revolution and its army of anti-regulatory extremists; President Reagan’s appointment of his new FCC chair, former broadcast lawyer Mark Fowler, was no exception. Fowler was not in favor of total broadcast de-regulation as he understood how quickly the airwaves would descend into complete chaos without regulations of broadcast licensing. In 1986 Mark Fowler released a FCC report stating that the Fairness Doctrine not only hurt public interest, it also violated free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Fowler vowed to have the Fairness Doctrine repealed, leaving the FCC a few months short of his goal being realized. In 1987, under the newly Reagan-appointed FCC Chairman (also a lawyer and former Reagan aide), Dennis Patrick, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished in a 4-0 vote. This vote was strongly opposed by Congress, who attempted to preempt the FCC decision and codify the Fairness Doctrine, but legislation was vetoed by then-President Reagan. Although the FCC quit enforcing the Fairness Doctrine during Ronald Reagan’s administration and wanted to repeal the Doctrine outright, they faced the hurdle of Congress’ 1959 amendment to the Communications Act that made the Doctrine law. In 1986, two Supreme Court Justice appointees, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, on the D.C. Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote simply avoided the constitutional issue altogether and declared that Congress had not actually made the Fairness Doctrine law. Justice Bork wrote, “We do not believe that the language adopted in 1959 made the Fairness Doctrine a binding statutory obligation because the doctrine was imposed ‘under’, not ‘by’, the Communications Act of 1934.” In other words, the 1959 amendment established that the FCC could apply the doctrine but were not obliged to do so and the rule was simply at the discretion of the FCC. Although a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine a year later passed Congress with overwhelming support, it failed to override Reagan’s veto. Congress met the same opposition in a 1991 attempt to revive the Doctrine when George H.W. Bush threatened another veto.
According to Media Access Project (MAP), the only thing that has changed since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine is much less coverage of issues, citing that local and national television news and public affairs programming have declined. Giving a resounding echo to MAP’s conclusion is the Benton Foundation’s finding that 25% of broadcasting stations do not have local TV news and public affairs programming at all. The most noticeable and extreme change is the increased volume of conservative opinions heard on talk radio shows– very much like the ones I heard last week. Lawyer Edward Monks, who studied two commercial talk radio shows in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, found that “80 hours per week, more than 4 thousand hours per year, [are] programmed for Republican and conservative talk shows, without a single second second programmed for Democratic or liberal perspective.” Monks concluded that “Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society. There is nothing fair, balanced or democratic about it.”
A 2010 poll conducted by worldopinion.org found an interesting correlation between a person’s exposure to Fox News channels and the amount misinformation (or lower levels of true information) gathered by its viewers, regardless of party identification or partisan bias. In other words, the more a person (whether a Democrat or Republican) watched Fox News Channel, the less informed they were about current political facts. For example: “Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points).”
The study also found that “There were cases with some other news sources as well. Daily consumers of MSNBC and public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) were higher (34 points and 25 points respectively) in believing that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates. Daily watchers of network TV news broadcasts were 12 points higher in believing that TARP was signed into law by President Obama, and 11 points higher in believing that most Republicans oppose TARP.”
Although Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly claimed that the Fairness Doctrine was all that stood between Conservative Talk Show Hosts and their dominance on radio and television waves since its repeal, he is mistaken. All that the Fairness Doctrine ensured was that stations not be allowed to broadcast from a single perspective or unwavering opinions day after day without presenting opposing views. While the Fairness Doctrine was meant to be a guarantor of balance and inclusion on public airwaves, it was not a remedy or without its faults. It seems as though journalistic integrity faded quietly with the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal; its value can now be appreciated by those who wonder where the responsibility to present both sides of the story went. It is no accident that the tone of political campaigns since the turn of the century has become anything but fair or that people no longer trust news sources.