The new Congress has started its oversight of the FCC, and one of the first topics to be brought up is the reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine. Presidential candidate and head of the House of Representatives Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, Dennis Kucinich, was the first to call for hearings about the reintroduction of the doctrine. Others have joined in that cry, including it in a bill introduced in the House and Senate to reform the media ownership rules. But do these perhaps well-intentioned Congressmen really remember what the Fairness Doctrine meant? Basically, bland broadcasting.
The Fairness Doctrine was, for the most part, declared unconstitutional by the FCC in the late 1980s (though some limited aspects of the policy have persisted until very recently). The Commission decision finding the Doctrine to be unconstitutional made sense, as its application clearly abridged the free speech rights of broadcasters. Basically, the Fairness Doctrine required fair and balanced coverage of all controversial issues of public importance. While that may sound like a good goal (one good enough to be adopted by Fox News), in fact it resulted in bland programming.
Programs like Rush Limbaugh, or entire formats such as Air America, were impossible under the Fairness Doctrine, as stations were required to give all sides of a controversial issues of public importance equal opportunities to reach the station’s audience. Stations were reluctant to air programs that took a position on an issue, or to editorialize, as they had to give the other side of any issue an equal opportunity to appear on the station. In perhaps its most extreme application, when a flight of advertising was purchased on a station to take a position on an issue of importance, if the other side of the issue could not afford to buy time to respond, the station had to give the other side spot time – for free! While this concept of fairness may appeal to some, it requires the broadcaster to act unlike any other medium – to give up airtime to others for no compensation, to express opinions with which the station might not agree. So broadcasters didn’t air anything that could be perceived as taking a position on a controversial issue.
Stations simply could not operate like other members of the media and present controversial programming, as they were always concerned that there would be someone making a Fairness Doctrine claim. Stations could not have editorial pages like a newspaper would publish. No controversial programming could be broadcast like that which we now are so used to hearing on broadcast stations. A real change would be in the works if it returned – making broadcast programming more bland just as it needs to become even more topical to compete with all the new media (which is not subject to any sort of Fairness Doctrine). Broadcasters must speak out to their elected representatives now to prevent this policy from making a reappearance and limiting their First Amendment rights.