Everybody uses the internet in 2022. Once it was considered a luxury item, but today, due to tools like Google Maps and Google Translate, even for the poor, internet access is considered a required item in today’s society. Yes, some people use the internet to play mobile casino games, but it is also used to keep up with current events, and local / state / federal news.
At one time, news agencies were controlled by the Fairness Doctrine, but it was eventually repealed. Some believe it should return, while others do not. Should it be? Should it not be? In order to understand the future, you have to understand the past.
1938 Origins of the Fairness Doctrine
In 1938, a former Yankee Network employee named Lawrence J. Flynn challenged the license of John Shepard III’s WAAB in Boston. Flynn asserted that these stations were being used to air one-sided political viewpoints and broadcast attacks (including editorials) against local (and federal) politicians that Shepard opposed.
1941 Mayflower Decision
in 1941, the commission made a ruling that came to be known as the Mayflower Decision which declared that radio stations, due to their public interest obligations, must remain neutral in matters of news and politics, and they were not allowed to give editorial support to any particular political position or candidate.
In 1949, the Mayflower Decision was repealed.
But the foundation of the Fairness Doctrine was laid out by reaffirming the FCC’s holding that licensees must not use their stations “for the private interest, whims or caprices [of licensees], but in a manner which will serve the community generally.” The FCC Report established two forms of regulation on broadcasters: to provide adequate coverage of public issues, and to ensure that coverage fairly represented opposing views. The second rule required broadcasters to provide reply time to issue-oriented citizens.
Until 1967, the doctrine remained a matter of general policy and was applied on a case-by-case basis.
During this time, NBC, on an ongoing basis, was censoring news coverage of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Essentially the doctrine was voluntary. So a news organization was legally allowed to either choose or not choose to follow it.
Why was the “Fairness Doctrine” legal (1969)?
Although similar laws are unconstitutional when applied to the press, the court stated that radio stations could be regulated in this way because of the limited public airwaves at the time. (1969)
A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others. … It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.
The court did not see how the fairness doctrine went against the First Amendment’s goal of creating an informed public. The fairness doctrine required that those who were talked about be given chance to respond to the statements made by broadcasters.
The court believed that this helped create a more informed public. Justice White explained that, without this doctrine, station owners would only have people on the air who agreed with their opinions.
Throughout his opinion, Justice White argued that radio frequencies (and by extension television stations) should be used to educate the public about controversial issues in a way that is fair and non-biased so that they can create their own opinions.
The court “ruled unanimously in 1969 that the Fairness Doctrine was not only constitutional but essential to democracy. The public airwaves should not just express the opinions of those who can pay for air time; they must allow the electorate to be informed about all sides of controversial issues.”
1984, Fairness Doctrine
In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not forbid editorials by non-profit stations that received grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The FCC in 1984 was considering repealing the Fairness Doctrine. They believed that the Fairness Doctrine was chilling speech. In 1984, the view at the time was that the Fairness Doctrine was reducing rather than enchancing speech.
The fairness doctrine has been used by various administrations to harass political opponents on the radio. Bill Ruder, Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Kennedy administration, acknowledged that “Our massive strategy [in the early 1960s] was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.”
The Democrats did not like the fact that Republicans were able to broadcast at small local radio stations. So their strategy was to force these small stations to provide “free time” to them. They would consider allowing the Republicans to speak as too costly and therefore drop Republican programs.
The use of the fairness doctrine by the National Council for Civic Responsibility (NCCR) was to force right-wing radio stations to air rebuttals against the opinions expressed on their radio stations.
1985, Revoking the Fairness Doctrine
The opinion by the Reagan administration in 1985 was that the Fairness Doctrine hurt the public interest and violated free speech rights. The FCC examined alternatives to the fairness doctrine. In its 1987 report, the alternatives—including abandoning a case-by-case enforcement approach, replacing the doctrine with open access time for all members of the public, doing away with the personal attack rule, and eliminating certain other aspects of the doctrine—were rejected by the FCC for various reasons.
On August 4, 1987, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished.
The FCC suggested that because of the many media voices in the marketplace, the doctrine be deemed unconstitutional.
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.
Congress in 1987 tried to make the Fairness Doctrine into law, but the legislation was vetoed by President Reagan.
Congress tried again in 1991, and it was vetoed by President George H. W. Bush.
How politicians viewed it at the time
The Reagan White House believed that if the fairness doctrine was not kept, the Democrats would attack Republicans non-stop on all of the major media networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC as well as PBS.
The Democrats wanted to keep the Fairness Doctrine.
The whole reason why the Fairness Doctrine was repealed was that Democrats were using it as a political weapon to put Conservative Talk shows out of business.
How the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine affected talk radio
The 1987 repeal of the fairness doctrine enabled the rise of talk radio.
Until 2000, the “personal attack” rule applied. Whenever a person (or small group) was subject to a personal attack during a broadcast. Stations had to notify such persons (or groups) within a week of the attack, send them transcripts of what was said and offer the opportunity to respond on-the-air. The “political editorial” rule applied when a station broadcast editorials endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, and stipulated that the unendorsed candidates be notified and allowed a reasonable opportunity to respond.
The U.S. Court of Appeals required the FCC to justify these rules. The FCC did not even try, so the rule was appealed.
From 2000 until 2017, most people were fine with the way things were due to the advent of the internet and people being able to respond through personal blogs and their own websites.
After doing a bit of background research to write this article, I am not sure if the Fairness Doctrine would or would not create an equal playing field.
First of all, when people like Pelosi talk about the Fairness Doctrine, they are only talking about TV and Radio. They do not even mention the internet.
Second, the Democrats, specifically the Kennedy Administration, used the Fairness Doctrine to put programs that supported their opponents financially out of business, which would result in their candidates not being allowed to speak.
Isn’t that exactly what is happening with companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? These companies deny their political opponents’ money from monetary ads in order to force them out of business, which would result in them not being able to spread their views.