Fearing Fairness–When You Don’t Know What It Is

After giving a dubious account of the causes of the Democrats’ 1994 electoral disaster, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson (11/14/08) provides an inaccurate description of the Fairness Doctrine, which he calls

a federal regulation (overturned by the Reagan administration in 1987) requiring broadcast outlets to give equal time to opposing political viewpoints. Under this doctrine, three hours of Rush Limbaugh on a radio station would have to be balanced by three hours of his liberal equivalent. This may sound fair and balanced. But it is a classic case where the “unintended consequences” are so obvious that those consequences must be intended. It would destroy the profitability of conservative talk radio and lead other outlets to avoid political issues entirely–actually reducing the public discussion of controversial issues.

I have to say–if that’s what the Fairness Doctrine was, then I would be against it. But it was never an equal-time rule; instead, it required broadcasters to provide some coverage of controversial issues and to make some provision for opposing views. In practice, the FCC would accept roughly a 5-to-1 ratio as providing adequate balance. Far from making conservative talk radio impossible, a talkshow format in which the host occasionally takes calls from listeners who disagree was an easy way for stations to fulfill their Fairness Doctrine obligations.

The genius of the Fairness Doctrine was that it balanced the broadcasters’ First Amendment right to express their point of view with the reality that the government is granting a monopoly to license-holders to broadcast on a particular frequency–in effect saying that they and no one else has a right to express themselves on that particular street corner. The Fairness Doctrine says that every once in a while, you have to let someone else share the soapbox. I wonder why right-wing pundits find that so threatening?

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.