Now that Democrats control the White House and have a strong majority in Congress, there have been rumblings about restoring the fairness doctrine, the policy that required radio and TV stations to provide equal time to opposing views on the issues of the day. Democrats apparently hope to counter the ostensible power of conservative talk radio and right-leaning networks such as Fox News.
Though there is ample evidence that the American public is poorly informed, sometimes deliberately misinformed, and often agitated to anger by manipulation and selective presentation of information, a return to the fairness doctrine is not needed.
A little history is in order to understand why.
A critical decision made by the federal government in the 1920s is at the heart of the doctrine. With the rise of radio, a phenomenon on par with the Internet in its transformation of the communications world, the government decided that the public owned the airwaves, and that it would regulate them on the public’s behalf. Michael Socolow, a University of Maine assistant professor with a specialty in the subject, said the Federal Radio Act in 1927 asserted that stations had to act in the public interest.
In 1941, the Mayflower decision prohibited radio stations from advocating for political positions. But that rule proved futile, professor Socolow said, when World War II began, as stations enthusiastically supported the war. In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission then created the fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide contrasting views on controversial subjects.
Professor Socolow said the rule worked well through the peak of the network age, which he puts at 1978. Not since, he said, has any media company had the influence and market share of CBS, NBC and ABC. That narrow control of information was brief, and partly the result of the decline in the number of newspapers in the 1960s. (That decline prompted President Nixon, ironically enough, given his disdain for journalists, to enact the Newspaper Preservation Act. It essentially relaxed antitrust laws so newspapers could share resources.)
By 1984, the world had changed again with the ascendancy of cable TV. In the midst of President Reagan’s deregulation efforts, the fairness doctrine was dissolved. FCC Chairman Mark Fowler famously said that year that TV was just “a toaster with pictures,” meaning that it was just another home appliance, and the government did not need to regulate its content.
In pushing to end the fairness doctrine, the Reagan administration argued that cable TV, with its plethora of choices for viewers, meant there was no need to mandate presenting both sides of an issue. This argument is persuasive.
The rise of Fox News and conservative talk radio followed. Seeing a market opportunity with last year’s election, MSNBC has recently become as liberal in its programming as Fox is conservative.
Professor Socolow said studies show that few minds are changed by the Sean Hannitys and Keith Olbermanns of the media world. Like sports fans, most people gravitate toward the spinmeister of their choice.
That freedom of choice is integral to the First Amendment, and must remain.