A few words about the Fairness Doctrine

Posted by Mitchell - December 30, 2008 (entry 620)

A 2007 study about political bias in radio talk shows showed that ten major American cities (including Chicago) examined in the study saw more radio airtime dedicated to politically right-wing radio talk. It seemed that this study and its results launched a potent buzz in right-wing political circles of the impending return of the Fairness Doctrine, or a "noveau version" of the Fairness Doctrine. The buzz has been renewed since election day, particularly since Democrats will regain both houses of Congress and the White House.

Backing up for a moment, let's first ask: What is the Fairness Doctrine? It was an FCC regulation that was first formally enforced by the FCC in 1949 which said that broadcasters had prevent tedium regarding on broadcast radio and TV. It didn't mean that broadcasters were required to perfectly balance every perspective they aired; it just meant that an attempt at a variety of perspectives was to be achieved to avoid tedium. However, the FCC in 1987 announced it would no longer enforce certain regulations under the Fairness Doctrine, which was upheld two years later by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Since CMA's founding in 2002, the Fairness Doctrine has come up a grand total of three times in various discussions (mostly public events where audience members who remember the Fairness Doctrine ask about it), and a grand total of zero times in six years' worth of CMA meetings before the 2007 study and the subsequent fracas. In 2008, as right-wing hype around the Fairness Doctrine, progressive and liberal commentators decried the hype as just that.

The conventional wisdom, even among left and liberal media activists, has been thinking that since the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine opened the door to the explosion of right-wing talk radio, therefore restoring the Fairness Doctrine will help to stem that tide. There are two problems with that line of thinking. One, restoring the Fairness Doctrine would not mean the end of Rush Limbaugh and right-wing radio since the circumstances that let that genie escape extend well beyond the Fairness Doctrine. And two, the Fairness Doctrine was never abolished and still remains on the books. The FCC in 1987 didn't abolish the Doctrine; it simply stated that it would no longer enforce it. Many legal experts say that the FCC could start enforcing the Fairness Doctrine again if it wanted to. Thus, in a manner of speaking, the Fairness Doctrine was never actually abolished and still remains on the books.

But Democrats across the board have said no to restoring the Fairness Doctrine, or presumably to its re-enforcement by a Democratic FCC. Still, the Fairness Doctrine is controversial, particularly among progressive or liberal media activists, and whether or not the re-enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine would improve media overall remains something to be seen. After all, one could argue that American media simply weren't that fair with the Fairness Doctrine.

But there's a larger concern here. With at least talk of the Fairness Doctrine back in play, we could see a smearing of everything media-reform related -- net neutrality, media ownership, strict broadcast license enforcement, and so on -- as being connected with the Fairness Doctrine, or as a "new" Fairness Doctrine. Whether or not those aligned with right-wing media actually understand what we're about, this could be seen a ploy to trying to drag the media and democracy forces through the mud, or to decry any kind of non-Republican non-corporate media enforcement as re-enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. This is something we have to avoid ourselves, and refute when discussed.

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