Aug 1 1987

What’s Unfair About the Fairness Doctrine?

Lincoln quote (cc photo: Terry McCombs)

May 30, 1860 (cc photo: Terry McCombs)

Executives of America’s leading broadcasting companies have made a startling admission: Free speech, widely cherished as an American value, has not been practiced on television.

What has stifled freedom of expression? The media moguls pin the blame on the Fairness Doctrine, which required TV and radio stations to air opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. (In other words, elementary journalism.) TV is bland, we’re told, because programmers shy away from controversy that might provoke demands for response time; failure to comply could result in loss of their license. What they don’t tell us is that the Fairness Doctrine was never seriously enforced in its 38-year history.

Nevertheless, in June President Reagan vetoed a bill which would have made the Fairness Doctrine federal law. Six weeks later, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the the Doctrine, claiming it infringed upon the First Amendment rights of broadcasters. (The FCC was empowered to repeal the rule thanks to a court decision written by Judge Robert Bork.)

Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson was incensed. “These days you can’t tell the difference between Reagan’s NSC and his FCC,” he told Extra!:

There’s the same evasion of  congressional will, the same arrogance of power, the same public-be-damned attitude, the same stupidity. The FCC decision demonstrates a total failure to recognize the basic principle underlying our broadcasting system—that the airwaves are a public trust.

The editorial pages of America’s major newspapers were virtually unanimous in opposing the Fairness Doctrine. With few exceptions, these newspapers neglected to mention that their corporate parents also own broadcasting properties affected by the FCC action.

For example, New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, formerly executive editor, attacked the Fairness Doctrine without informing his readers of the Times Company’s five TV stations. The Chicago Tribune did not point out that Tribune Broadcasting owns six TV and four radio stations. Ditto for the Miami Herald (parent Knight-Ridder owns 10 stations), San Francisco Examiner (Hearst owns 13), Des Moines Register (part of Gannett, which owns 24) and the Atlanta Constitution (Cox Enterprises, 20).

Notable exceptions were the Washington Post (four TV stations) and Newsday (Times-Mirror, four radio), which acknowledged their connections to the broadcast industry while denouncing the Fairness Doctrine.

Newspaper editors, echoing the rationale of Reagan’s FCC, claim the Doctrine is no longer necessary because diversity is ensured by the increased number of stations now operating. But this is outweighed by the fact that today only a handful of corporations dominate broadcasting. Concentration of ownership has resulted in a more homogenous media—a development rarely discussed by news editors. Blandness is the inevitable result of corporations that opt for big ratings through programming that neither offends nor challenges the viewer.

The impact of the FCC ruling is already being felt. Days after the Fairness Doctrine was abolished, right-wing groups launched a well-financed TV ad campaign for military aid to the Contras. Opponents of Contra aid now have no legal recourse to demand their say. Public interest viewpoints, long slighted by the mass media, face even greater difficulty getting access.

There was a time during the radio days of the 1930s when the corporate media monopoly was seriously challenged by a public interest movement led by parent/teacher groups, college presidents, librarians, labor leaders and ministers. Decrying the commercialization of the airwaves, the coalition rallied around a Senate bill, the Wagner/Hatfield Amendment, which would have allotted 25 percent of broadcast channels to “educational, religious, agricultural, labor, cooperative and similar non-profit-making associations.” Corporate broadcasters responded with a massive lobbying effort, and the Amendment was defeated on the Senate floor.

Getting Congress to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine will be a priority for public interest groups. But Wagner/Hatfield-style approaches should also figure in long-term strategies.