Thursday, May 17, 2007

Not so "Fairness Doctrine"

There has been a lot of discussion in the media lately regarding a resurgence of the “Fairness Doctrine”. I thought it might be interesting to look at the history behind the Fairness Doctrine. It was once policy by the FCC, why is it not still enforced? The historical information for this post is taken largely from an article on the doctrine by Val E. Limburg on

In the words of Limburg, the “Fairness Doctrine” was, “ attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair.” The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the FCC, and was not actual law. In 1949, the FCC believed that since there were a limited number of frequencies available, the broadcasters had a responsibility to report all sides of a particular issue. Editorials on assorted issues were permitted, so long as opposing views were also allowed. Journalists considered the doctrine a violation of First Amendment rights. They felt the FCC shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing “fairness”.

The doctrine also began to have the opposite effect of what was originally intended. Limburg points out, “ [i]n order to avoid the requirement to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists simply avoided any coverage of some controversial issues.” Instead of many sides being presented, no sides were presented on controversial issues. This became known as the “Chilling Effect” and was the exact opposite of the intention of the FCC.

In 1985, the Fairness Report was issued by the FCC and argued against continuing to use the fairness doctrine. The FCC noted the chilling effect the policy was having and expressed its concern that the doctrine might be in direct violation of the First Amendment. In 1987, the courts ruled that the doctrine was not congressional law and the FCC could choose whether to enforce it or not. The FCC decided to dissolve the doctrine. Congress has tried to pass the fairness doctrine as law since that time, but each President has vetoed it. Congress has yet to muster the votes to override a veto.

Limburg closes out his article with the exact reason a fairness doctrine is not needed: “The public relies on the judgment of broadcast journalists and its own reasoning ability to sort out one-sided or distorted coverage on an issue.” With the number of cable, satellite TV, satellite radio, radio, and even internet sources, there is always someone covering an issue you are interested in. Think Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are too one sided? Tune in to CNN or NPR.

In case any reader may think I am simply repeating the conservative talking points, Newsweek recently ran an article detailing the problems with a new fairness doctrine. Regardless of your political belief system, liberal, conservative, or other, the fairness doctrine has no place in today’s society. The Fairness Doctrine represents an attempt to restrict freedom of speech and calling it anything else is simply not telling the truth.

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