Bring back the Fairness Doctrine to media

Bring back the Fairness Doctrine to media

The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

At one point, the First Amendment’s interpretation was about how people express information AND how people received information. 

If someone like Fox News or the Republican Party lied or even criticized a person or group on the air, the person or group attacked had the right to respond. 

The receiving part clearly has been rewritten to favor the rich and powerful.

The Golden Age of Radio was from the 1930s to the 1950s when it was superseded by television. Radio had grown from a novelty in the 1910s and 1920s to a technology that over half of the American public had access to.  Radio was carefully regulated in the Communications Act of 1934 for content the act also created the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). The FCC mission included regulating television which was an emerging technology. 

From 1949 to 1987 the FCC implemented a Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine allowed people to respond to controversial issues or matters in the public interest that were on the public airways. The doctrine did not state it must be equal time, but opposing organizations must get a chance to respond to editorialized broadcasted content.

The origins of the Fairness Doctrine comes in 1941. In 1941 the FCC put forth a policy called the Mayflower Doctrine. 

The Mayflower Doctrine stated that broadcasters could not editorialize. This peculiar American interpretation of being objective was soon found to be an inefficient way to communicate information. 

There are times when subjects need an authoritative opinion. As a news organization with the facts, if a person states that it is raining and it is not raining, then not only is it your obligation to say it is not raining. It may also warrant editorializing the liar who said it was raining, especially if they said it to sell umbrellas. 

By 1949 it was clear that the Mayflower Doctrine was not a productive way to do journalism or inform the public, so the Fairness Doctrine replaced the Mayflower Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine stated that regarding controversial issues or matters of public interest that are editorialized, people and organizations had a right to respond. The fairness doctrine held that a right to respond existed because the public has a right to hear “all responsible viewpoints on particular issues” and broadcast licensees have “the duty of preserving for the public radio as a medium of free expression and fair presentation.”

The meaning of fair presentation presently has since been warped. Fair presentation is not just being honest in literal representation; it  also means a fair presentation of all reasonable sides. If an organization called themselves a news organization during the Fairness Doctrine, there was a reasonable expectation that the organization had attempted fair presentation, which means a representation of all reasonable sides, not equal time, but at least showing another opinion or perspective existed. 

Those with broadcast licenses were required to notify those personally attacked on TV or radio and provide a tape, transcript, or accurate summary of what was stated and allow efficient time to respond. 

This, of course, was fought by the racists, bigots, antisemites, and other American brands of filth. 

There were several challenges. The most notable was the 1969 Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, which reached the Supreme Court. Red Line Broadcasting Co., Inc challenged the doctrine on First Amendment grounds. 

In November 1964, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. Inc broadcast a fifteen minute program by Christian evangelist  anti-communist, segregationist Reverend Billy James Hargis hosted a radio show called “The Christian Crusade.” This particular show included a discussion on the 1964 presidential election between liberal Democrat Lyndon B Johnson and conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. Hargis brought up a book he thought was offensive about the Republican candidate by  Fred J. Cook, “Goldwater— Extremist on the Right.” During the broadcast, Hargis made the following statements regarding Cook:

“Now who is Cook? Cook was fired from the New York World-Telegram after he made a false charge publicly on television against an unnamed official of the New York City government. New York publishers and News-week magazine for December 7, 1959, showed that Fred Cook and his pal Eugene Gleason had made up the whole story and this confession was made to the District Attorney, Frank Hogan. After losing his job, Cook went to work for the left-wing publication, The Nation.”

The Supreme Court reaffirmed that broadcasting companies were leasing the airways. However, after Red Lion, First Amendment jurisprudence started to allow more speech rights to broadcasters and began to allow room for the constitutionality Fairness Doctrine to be questioned. 

On April 18, 1987, Dennis Roy Patrick was appointed FCC chairperson by President Regan. Patrick was the son of an LAPD officer and former Young Republican. Under Patrick, telecommunications, television, radio, and cable industries underwent significant structural and regulatory reform. Broadcast and cable deregulation, stricter enforcement of decency rules, relaxation of regulations governing television program ownership and syndication rights, the introduction of Direct Broadcast Satellite competition, and broad telecommunications deregulation. In 1987, under Patrick’s watch and a brief period of study, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC stated that the doctrine likely violated broadcasters’ free speech rights, led to less speech about issues of public importance over broadcast airwaves, and was no longer required because of the increase in competition among mass media. He resigned in 1989 to become the CEO of Time Warner Telecommunications.

A year later, in 1988, toxic Rush Limbaugh debuted his national radio show, and in less than a decade, Fox News would air and begin spreading lies masquerading as facts. 

We need the Fairness Doctrine back and while the doctrine didn’t apply to print it should apply to media that used to be exclusively print, but now has a substantial Internet presence. The Internet is under the FCC. It is time that we bring back the Fairness Doctrine and be very clear that the internet like the radio and television has an obligation for the public good to be reasonable in presentation.

This is no longer about civility. It is about sanity. 


Teka Lo, Pubic Intellectuals

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