It seems like whenever Democrats are elected to serve as President and take control of Congress, there is talk about the revival of the Fairness Doctrine as some panacea for restoring balance and civility to political debate. In recent weeks, we have seen many articles blaming conservative talk radio for the current divisions in the country and for the widespread belief in discredited claims about political and social topics. This same debate arose almost exactly 12 years ago following the election of President Obama (see our articles here and here about that debate). In coming days, we will write about a new round of legislative proposals looking to impose content moderation rules on digital media (including a Florida proposal to essentially block social media platforms from de-platforming one candidate, while allowing another candidate access, and a recent Congressional proposal removing Section 230 immunity from digital platforms for certain kinds of speech). But, given the discussion of reviving the old Fairness Doctrine, we thought it worth taking a look back at just what that Doctrine required, the reasons for its demise, and some of the issues that would surround any attempt to bring it back.
First, it is important to understand what the Doctrine covered and what it did not. It was a broadcast doctrine adopted in 1949, in an era that pre-dated the political talk that we now see dominating so many cable networks. It also was different from the Equal Time Rule which is still in effect for candidate appearances on broadcast stations. The Fairness Doctrine required that stations provide balanced coverage of all controversial issues of public importance. The Fairness Doctrine never required “equal time” in the sense of strict equality for each side of an issue on a minute-for-minute basis. In talk programs and news coverage, a station just had to make sure that both points of view were presented in such a way that the listener would get exposure to them. How that was done was left to the station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases. Continue Reading The Return of the Fairness Doctrine – What it Was and Why it Won’t Return