First of a three-part series exploring media reform in the United States with a Democratic President and Congress.
The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in the U.S. in 1949 (Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, 13 F.C.C. 1246 ). The doctrine remained a matter of general policy and was applied on a case-by-case basis until 1967, when certain provisions of the doctrine were incorporated into FCC regulations. It did not require equal time for opposing views, but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.
The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements:
• Devote airtime to discuss controversial matters of public interest.
• Provide contrasting views regarding controversial matters.
Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views. It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials.
Under FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler, a communications attorney who had served on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign staff in 1976 and 1980, the commission began to repeal parts of the Fairness Doctrine. In 1985 it was determined that the doctrine hurt the public interest and violated the First Amendment.
In August 1987, the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4-0 vote in the Syracuse Peace Council decision. It was confirmed again by the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court in February 1989. The FCC stated, “the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of [the Fairness Doctrine] restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters … [and] actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists,” and suggested that the doctrine be deemed unconstitutional due to the many media voices in the marketplace.
With upcoming elections in the United States, a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine is possible. If Democrats win the presidential election, Barak Obama will have the opportunity to appoint the new FCC Chairman. The Fairness Doctrine could be reinstated through administrative action without the need for congressional approval. A simple 3-2 majority under a sympathetic FCC Chairman would bring back the once unconstitutional doctrine.
In part 2, find out how a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine would limit your free speech in your media ministry.