Since the election of President Obama and the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the fears of the return of the Fairness Doctrine have been highlighted on talk radio, online, by emails and in conversations throughout the broadcast industry. Even though President Obama had stated that he was not in favor of its return, and even liberal commentators have gone so far as to make fun of conservatives for suggesting that there might be an attempt to bring it back (see our post on Keith Olbermann lambasting George Will for making such a suggestion). Yet this week the doctrine was back into the national discussion, coming up in a press conference with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs (who joked it off without dismissing the rumors) and in a speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. What’s all the fuss about anyway?
To really understand the debate, it’s important to understand what the Fairness Doctrine is and what it is not. We’ve seen many politicians referring to the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule in the same sentence, as if they are part and parcel of the same thing. In fact, they are different issues. Essentially, the Fairness Doctrine simply required that stations provide balanced coverage of 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 in a station’s discretion, and the FCC intervened in only the most egregious cases.