“I’m all for the Fairness Doctrine, whatever that is.” ~ Former Ohio governor, George Voinovich
Few issues have generated as much debate and controversy as the idea of media bias. The proliferation of media platforms and an increasingly polarized country have led some to call for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. This sometimes contentious regulation was born out of a desire to ensure balanced and fair coverage of “controversial issues of public importance,” and it became the cornerstone of American broadcasting regulation for several decades.
The Fairness Doctrine was a 1949 federal regulation that required any radio or TV station that informed the public about topics of national interest to provide equal time to the opposing viewpoint. It evolved in a direct line from the Radio Act of 1927 as a response to fear among those in power that such a wide-spread means of communication, in the wrong hands, could become a dangerous propaganda machine.
Prior to the Roaring Twenties, most people got their news from neighbors, a smattering of local newspapers, and a handful of larger publications. Radio put news and entertainment in people’s living rooms at a scale never before experienced, and Washington reacted by looking for ways to keep it under control in the name of “protecting the public interest.”
With the advent of television, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) created by the act became the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Radio Act became the Fairness Doctrine.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t as much controversy when the doctrine was first enacted in 1949. It wasn’t until a new FCC chair was appointed under John F. Kennedy in 1963 that the first major implementation occurred. The rule was largely enforced to stifle dissent during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and it was finally repealed toward the end of Reagan’s second term in 1987 (though it remained on the books until 2011).
Jump to the current era, when everyone is wired for sound and carries networked communication devices in their pocket, and you can see the dilemma with bringing back the Fairness Doctrine today.
Although there were several challenges to the constitutionality of the Radio Act and the Fairness Doctrine, it wasn’t until the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC that the government’s stance on non-print media regulation was solidified. In a unanimous decision, the court stated that, because the government issued broadcasting licenses and the public airwaves were a finite resource, the Fairness Doctrine was both constitutional and enforceable.
In fact, the pressing issue of the public interest made it imperative to provide fair and balanced coverage of contentious socio-political news stories.
Under the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters were required to:
Cover controversial issues of public importance.
Present contrasting viewpoints on these issues.
Give adequate airtime to these viewpoints.
Avoid editorializing or taking positions on these issues.
They were also expected to maintain records of their programming and to make these records available to the public, demonstrating their compliance with the doctrine. The purpose was to:
Ensure balanced coverage
Encourage civic discourse
Discourage media monopolies
Reduce sensationalism in the news
Those were the lofty goals of the Fairness Doctrine, but that’s not how things panned out when it was tried in the wild. Instead, licenses were refused or revoked arbitrarily. For example, licenses were revoked from two radio stations in Chicago that served a largely immigrant audience in favor of granting a license to a station that promised to “stress loyalty to the community and the nation and teach American ideals and responsibilities.”
In the 1960s, JFK attempted to weaponize the doctrine against his detractors using several programs and methods. For example, his FCC chair, Bill Henry, created what was called “The Cullman Doctrine,” allowing opposition viewpoints to get free airtime. This made it very expensive for stations to air controversial opinions or criticize public figures and their policies. Station owners simply stopped allowing anyone known for voicing opposition to the Kennedy administration on the air.
Another issue was the question of who would decide what was an opposing viewpoint, how many would be allowed, and how that would play out in reality. If one person speaks against the government, would the permitted response be one-on-one down to the minute or would multiple viewpoints be allowed? Would the response be broadcasted immediately after or on a different day? If on another day, would it air in the same time slot in front of the same audience? Could representatives of other parties or groups have equal time or would the point/counterpoint be limited to the two establishment parties?
These were, and still are, the points of contention surrounding the Fairness Doctrine. There was also a fear that the rule would have a chilling effect on free speech and debate.
However, it wasn’t repealed because it didn’t work. Not entirely, anyway.
Like most things in Washington, it was about money and the pursuit of more of it in the free-wheeling, pro-free market ‘80s.
One need only read the words of Reagan’s FCC chair, Mark Fowler to see the true motivation:
”The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants.”
As with many government agencies, the Reagan-era FCC was controlled by someone with a vested interest in stacking the deck in favor of those who had much to gain from deregulation in the broadcasting industry. One of Fowler’s aides, Thomas Herwitz, was a lawyer for Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News. He was also the general manager of Fox station WGGT in Washington.
Wedged between station owners’ somewhat cozy relationship with the powers that led to its repeal and calls to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine are the many who feel that government intervention in news reporting would be unconstitutional.
It might also be nearly impossible in an era where anyone with a smartphone and internet access can call themselves a reporter, and any attempt at platform moderation is deemed censorship.
However, the intricacies of media in the digital age have transformed how we create and consume news. Such a diversity of voices and platforms could significantly impact the feasibility and effectiveness of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.
On the flip side, it is this proliferation of platforms that some cite as the reason we should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. The rise of hate speech and “alternative facts” are especially concerning.
Other reasons for a proposed reinstatement include:
Perceived broadcast bias, especially on established legacy media outlets like Fox News and CNN
Preventing broadcast consolidation and monopolies, ala the Sinclair Broadcast Group
Presenting fair and balanced reporting on topics of national interest
Encouraging a diversity of viewpoints among media consumers
Toning down rhetoric and divisive opinions
Some key considerations on the side of leaving the rule in the dustbin of history include:
Determining which entities should be subject to Fairness Doctrine regulations in the digital age is a complex issue. Would it apply to social media platforms that host user-generated content? Should podcasters and bloggers be considered broadcasters?
Defining the scope of the doctrine's applicability is a critical aspect of any potential revival.
One of the primary challenges in applying the Fairness Doctrine to the digital age lies in enforcement. In the time of traditional broadcasting, it was relatively straightforward for the FCC to monitor and regulate a finite number of radio and television stations.
However, the internet has given rise to a vast and decentralized media ecosystem that includes social media platforms, streaming services, podcasts, and independent websites. Enforcing the Fairness Doctrine across so many platforms would be an extremely complex and resource-intensive task.
The protection of free speech was always a fundamental concern, and that continues in the debate over reinstating the Fairness Doctrine in the digital age. Critics argue that requiring digital platforms to provide opposing viewpoints could amount to government censorship and interfere with the First Amendment rights of content creators. They also contend that the government shouldn’t dictate what content must be presented because that would be tantamount to compelled speech.
The digital age has allowed individuals to curate their own media consumption, leading to audience fragmentation. People can choose to consume content that aligns with their existing beliefs and opinions, further reinforcing echo chambers.
Implementing the Fairness Doctrine in this environment may be less effective in exposing audiences to contrasting viewpoints because individuals could simply avoid content that challenges their perspectives.
The ever-changing algorithms that regulate content distribution and reach on digital platforms pose additional complications. Algorithms prioritize content based on user preferences, engagement, and relevance, which may not align with the Fairness Doctrine's requirement for balanced presentation.
Regulating algorithms to ensure fairness could be technically challenging and raise concerns about government interference in the operations of tech companies.
Rather than reviving the Fairness Doctrine, some proponents argue for alternative approaches to address the challenges of the digital age. This includes promoting media literacy, supporting independent and non-profit news organizations, and encouraging diverse ownership of media outlets.
So, what’s the answer? Some have suggested that, rather than reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine, we replace it with an “Awareness Doctrine” that tags content with labels delineating fact-based journalism from opinion pieces.
A better, more robust solution might be for us to develop a level of media literacy that empowers us to consume and evaluate media with a more critical eye.
In the absence of a Fairness Doctrine or similar regulation, it's essential for individuals to develop critical thinking skills so they can sift through partisan media and disinformation with confidence.
Individuals can learn to navigate the news and digital media landscape by:
Diversifying their sources: Avoid relying on a single news outlet or social media platform for information. Consume news from a variety of sources with different perspectives to get a more well-rounded view of an issue.
Fact-checking: Take the time to fact-check information before accepting it as truth. Use reputable fact-checking organizations such as Snopes, FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact to verify claims and statements.
Investigating the source: Investigate the source of a news story. Reliable news outlets have established reputations for accuracy and journalistic integrity. Be cautious of sources with a history of bias or spreading misinformation. Are there links to reputable sources and specific facts and figures?
Questioning the headlines: Sensational or clickbait headlines are designed to draw attention rather than provide accurate information. Before responding or sharing, read the entire article to understand the context and nuances of the story.
Watching for confirmation bias: Be aware of personal biases and try to approach information with an open mind. Don't dismiss information solely because it challenges existing beliefs.
Evaluating expertise: Consider the qualifications and expertise of the individuals cited in news stories or opinion pieces. Reputable, qualified experts in a field are more likely to provide accurate and informed perspectives.
Being aware of emotional manipulation: Be cautious of content that aims to evoke strong emotions like anger, fear, or outrage. Emotional manipulation is a common tactic used in partisan and disinformation campaigns.
Checking for citations and sources: Reputable news articles include citations and references to support their claims. Lack of citations or vague sourcing should raise red flags.
Examining the publication date: Ensure that the information you're reading is current and relevant. Old news or outdated information may not provide an accurate picture of current events.
Seeking multiple perspectives: Engage in discussions with individuals who hold different viewpoints. Listening to and understanding diverse opinions helps form a more informed perspective.
Reporting suspected disinformation: If you encounter content that you believe is disinformation or false, report it to the social media platform or website where you found it. Many platforms have mechanisms for reporting fake news.
Educating themselves about misinformation tactics: Learn about common tactics used to spread disinformation. Deepfakes, manipulated images, and misleading statistics are all over the internet. Something as simple as an image search only takes a few seconds.
Using critical thinking: Apply critical thinking skills to assess the credibility of information. Ask questions, consider the source's agenda, and look for inconsistencies or logical fallacies.
In an era where misinformation and partisan media are becoming the norm, being a discerning consumer of news is crucial. Armed with these tips and a critical mindset, you can better navigate modern media and make well-informed decisions about the information you consume and share.
There are no easy answers when it comes to being an informed citizen. When you can’t count on the government to act in your best interest, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.
One of the best ways to do that is to support independent candidates who are working to build a better tomorrow. You could even consider running for office yourself. Good Party is dedicated to giving candidates and their supporters the tools and information they need to run and win their elections.