Fairness Doctrine
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"In a fundamental political sense, all corporations resist popular power and speak a common language of profit once they have

gained sufficient foothold in the marketplace. The corporatization of the media has proceeded without interruption since

well before the FCC's Fairness Doctrine was finally discarded, in 1987. "

 

blackcommentator.com

 


                                                                                            FAIRNESS DOCTRINE

U.S. Broadcasting Policy

The policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission that became known as the "Fairness Doctrine" is an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair. The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. With the deregulation sweep of the Reagan Administration during the 1980s, the Commission dissolved the fairness doctrine.

This doctrine grew out of concern that because of the large number of applications for radio station being submitted and the limited number of frequencies available, broadcasters should make sure they did not use their stations simply as advocates with a singular perspective. Rather, they must allow all points of view. That requirement was to be enforced by FCC mandate.

From the early 1940s, the FCC had established the "Mayflower Doctrine," which prohibited editorializing by stations. But that absolute ban softened somewhat by the end of the decade, allowing editorializing only if other points of view were aired, balancing that of the station's. During these years, the FCC had established dicta and case law guiding the operation of the doctrine.

In ensuing years the FCC ensured that the doctrine was operational by laying out rules defining such matters as personal attack and political editorializing (1967). In 1971 the Commission set requirements for the stations to report, with their license renewal, efforts to seek out and address issues of concern to the community. This process became known as "Ascertainment of Community Needs," and was to be done systematically and by the station management.

The fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937 which required stations to offer "equal opportunity" to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station. The attempt was to balance--to force an even handedness. Section 315 exempted news programs, interviews and documentaries. But the doctrine would include such efforts. Another major difference should be noted here: Section 315 was federal law, passed by Congress. The fairness doctrine was simply FCC policy.

The FCC fairness policy was given great credence by the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC. In that case, a station in Pennsylvania, licensed by Red Lion Co., had aired a "Christian Crusade" program wherein an author, Fred J. Cook, was attacked. When Cook requested time to reply in keeping with the fairness doctrine, the station refused. Upon appeal to the FCC, the Commission declared that there was personal attack and the station had failed to meet its obligation. The station appealed and the case wended its way through the courts and eventually to the Supreme Court. The court ruled for the FCC, giving sanction to the fairness doctrine.

The doctrine, nevertheless, disturbed many journalists, who considered it a violation of First Amendment rights of free speech/free press which should allow reporters to make their own decisions about balancing stories. Fairness, in this view, should not be forced by the FCC. In order to avoid the requirement to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists simply avoided any coverage of some controversial issues. This "chilling effect" was just the opposite of what the FCC intended.

By the 1980s, many things had changed. The "scarcity" argument which dictated the "public trustee" philosophy of the Commission, was disappearing with the abundant number of channels available on cable TV. Without scarcity, or with many other voices in the marketplace of ideas, there were perhaps fewer compelling reasons to keep the fairness doctrine. This was also the era of deregulation when the FCC took on a different attitude about its many rules, seen as an unnecessary burden by most stations. The new Chairman of the FCC, Mark Fowler, appointed by President Reagan, publicly avowed to kill to fairness doctrine.

By 1985, the FCC issued its Fairness Report, asserting that the doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, might actually have a "chilling effect" and might be in violation of the First Amendment. In a 1987 case, Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the courts declared that the doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. The FCC dissolved the doctrine in August of that year.

 

However, before the Commission's action, in the spring of 1987, both houses of Congress voted to put the fairness doctrine into law--a statutory fairness doctrine which the FCC would have to enforce, like it or not. But President Reagan, in keeping with his deregulatory efforts and his long-standing favor of keeping government out of the affairs of business, vetoed the legislation. There were insufficient votes to override the veto. Congressional efforts to make the doctrine into law surfaced again during the Bush administration. As before, the legislation was vetoed, this time by Bush.

The fairness doctrine remains just beneath the surface of concerns over broadcasting and cablecasting, and some members of congress continue to threaten to pass it into legislation. Currently, however, there is no required balance of controversial issues as mandated by the fairness doctrine. The public relies instead on the judgment of broadcast journalists and its own reasoning ability to sort out one-sided or distorted coverage of an issue. Indeed, experience over the past several years since the demise of the doctrine shows that broadcasters can and do provide substantial coverage of controversial issues of public importance in their communities, including contrasting viewpoints, through news, public affairs, public service, interactive and special programming.

-Val E. Limburg

 

 

FURTHER READING

Aufderheide, Patricia. "After the Fairness Doctrine: Controversial Broadcast Programming and the Public Interest." Journal of Communication (New York), Summer, 1990.

Benjamin, Louise M. "Broadcast Campaign Precedents From the 1924 Presidential Election." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Fall, 1987.

Brennan, Timothy A. "The Fairness Doctrine as Public Policy." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Fall, 1989.

Broadcasters and the Fairness Doctrine: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the Committee. United States Congress. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. Washington, D.C. U.S. Congressional Documents, 1989.

Cronauer, Adrian. "The Fairness Doctrine: A Solution in Search of a Problem." (Symposium: The Transformation of Television News). Federal Communications Law Journal (Los Angeles, California), October, 1994.

Donahue, Hugh Carter. "The Fairness Doctrine Is Shackling Broadcasting." Technology Review (Cambridge, Massachusetts), November-December, 1986.

Hazlett, Thomas W. "The Fairness Doctrine and the First Amendment." Public Interest (New York), Summer, 1989.

Krueger, Elizabeth. "Broadcasters' Understanding of Political Broadcast Regulation." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1991.

Rowan, Ford. Broadcast Fairness: Doctrine, Practice, Prospects: A Reappraisal of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time Rule. New York: Longmans, 1984.

Simmons, Steven J. The Fairness Doctrine and the Media. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1978.

Streeter, Thomas. "Beyond Freedom of Speech and the Public Interest: The Relevance of Critical Legal Studies to Communications Policy. Journal of Communication (New York), Spring, 1990.