Unpacking and Understanding Media Bias, Part 10: Fair, Equitable and Balanced – Life and Death of the Fairness Doctrine
The FCC’s 1949 Fairness Doctrine required broadcast television and radio licensees to present controversial issues of public interest in a “fair, equitable, and balanced” manner, but critics have argued that it actually hinders open discourse and promotes forced speech.
This is the tenth installment of a Citizen Truth series on the history of media bias and the varied forces that influence media coverage.
The previous installments are below:
Fair, Equitable and Balanced
The Radio Act of 1927 dictated that the Federal Radio Commission — predecessor to the Federal Communications Commission — should only issue broadcasting licenses when doing it served the public. In 1949, the FCC construed this to mean that licensees must present discussions of issues of public importance in a fair and balanced manner. In an attempt to outline the obligations of broadcasters, the FCC issued “In the Matter of Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees,” outlining licensees’ obligations as they related to news broadcasts. The Document noted that, “It is this right of the public to be informed, rather than any right on the part of the Government, any broadcast licensee or any individual member of the public to broadcast his own particular views on any matter, which is the foundation of the American system of broadcasting.”
What the Fairness Doctrine Did
Due to the scarcity of, and requirement of licenses for, broadcast television and radio stations, the FCC declared them “public trusts.” Introduced in 1949, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine required broadcast television and radio licensees to present controversial issues of public interest in a “fair, equitable, and balanced” manner.
The Fairness Doctrine intended to ensure viewers’ exposure to a variety of viewpoints by requiring television and radio stations to air differing perspectives on controversial issues. In addition to presenting opposing sides of the same stories, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to provide rebuttal time to the subjects of editorials (people or organizations) or attacks in news programming.
What the Fairness Doctrine Didn’t Do
The Doctrine did not require balance in individual programs on the stations, nor did it require the allocation of equal time for opposing viewpoints. Broadcasters had significant leeway in how they presented contradictory viewpoints. The rule did not guarantee subjects of editorials and attacks equal time for rebuttal. Furthermore, it did not require that the time slots offered to editorial or attack subjects for rebuttal be the same time slots in which attacks took place.
Court Challenges to the Fairness Doctrine
The constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine was upheld during the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case, Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC. At the time, the Court ruled that the Doctrine did not violate the broadcaster’s First Amendment rights; however, it warned that if the rule ever began to restrict speech, its constitutionality should be revisited.
In the 1974 Supreme Court Case Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo, the Court ruled that the Doctrine “inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate,” but it stopped short of declaring the rule unconstitutional.
Then, in 1984, in the FCC v. League of Women Voters, the Court asserted that the scarcity rationale was weak, thus establishing grounds for the FCC’s elimination of the rule in 1987.
First and foremost, those who opposed of the Fairness Doctrine — including FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler — did so on the ground of its unconstitutionality. From their perspective, most cities and towns had far more television and radio stations than newspapers. It seemed nonsensical to them that the FCC held broadcast stations and channels to stricter standards than newspapers.
Some conservatives in particular found the Fairness Doctrine inherently unfair. Though intended to elicit debate surrounding important and controversial issues, it often instead led broadcasters to avoid controversy altogether. Conservatives felt that this avoidance of controversy effectively silenced conservative dissent. Considering their broadcasts the response to a liberally biased mainstream media, conservatives found the FCC’s requirement that they also air liberal responses to their arguments unbalanced.
During the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, the FCC revisited the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC noted that cable news stations had broadened the spectrum of news sources available to consumers. Thus, they no longer considered broadcast and radio stations “limited resources.” Additionally, the commission had concerns that the Fairness Doctrine actually prevented newscasters from addressing controversial issues out of a desire to avoid the requirement of presenting both sides of stories.
The Demise of the Fairness Doctrine
The FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, subsequently removing it from the Federal Register in August of 2011. At the time, the FCC abolished the rule because “some stations were reluctant to discuss controversial issues, and the number of media outlets had grown since the rule’s inception. Many First-Amendment rights proponents were also uncomfortable with the prospect of government playing editor.”
Media Access Project president Andrew Schwartzman claims that since the end of the Fairness Doctrine, coverage of controversial issues has declined, and some credit the Fairness Doctrine’s demise with increasing political polarization in the U.S. More specifically, they attribute the rise of conservative talk radio to the end of the Fairness Doctrine. Scholars, on the other hand, argue that the rise of talk radio was “an ironic and unforeseen outcome of the repeal of the doctrine: many conservatives were actually against repeal, even though President Ronald Reagan and the FCC Chairmen he appointed were for its elimination.” And according to FAIR, opinionated talk radio — born in 1960 — had actually flourished under the Fairness Doctrine.
Calls to Revive the Fairness Doctrine
For the most part, in the 21st century, the left bluffs about reviving the doctrine while the right uses that empty threat as a call to arms. An argument in support of reinstatement of the rule contends that today, taken together with a 2017, Trump-era FCC decision that loosened station ownership restrictions, “these two decisions not only allowed given stations to present only one view, but for many stations nationwide…owned by the same conglomerate, such as the Sinclair Broadcasting Group — to present the same view.”
For his part, President Obama did not support reviving the Fairness Doctrine, calling it a “distraction” when both Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton discussed reinstating the rule. Opponents of the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine argue that it would once again hinder free speech and promote forced speech.
This past September, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced H.R. 4401: Restore the Fairness Doctrine Act of 2019. The bill has yet to acquire co-sponsors or move beyond the introduction stage. Govtrack.us gives it about a 2 percent chance of enactment.