The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials.
Sounds reasonable? So why was the enforcement of this rule stopped in 1987? And, since the rule is not enforced anyway, why is the FCC chairman Julius Genachovsky trying so hard to kill it by taking it off the books? Finally, what are the implications?
First, a little history.
FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and operates as an independent U.S. government agency overseen by Congress, to regulate interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable - to best serve the People's interest.
Concerns about that last bit - "to best serve the People's interest" - prompted the 1949 Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees -
It is axiomatic that one of the most vital questions of mass communication in a democracy is the development of an informed public opinion through the public dissemination of news and ideas concerning the vital issues of the day. [...] The Commission has consequently recognized the necessity for licensees to devote a reasonable percentage of their broadcast time to the presentation of news and programs devoted to the consideration and discussion of public issues of interest in the community served by the particular station. And we have recognized, with respect to such programs, the paramount right of the public in a free society to be informed and to have presented to it for acceptance or rejection the different attitudesand viewpoints concerning these vital and often controversial issues which are held by the various groups which make up the community.
Some "broadcasters" were immediately unhappy with the need to provide a balanced view and to present both sides of the argument. The Fairness Doctrine survived a major court challenge in 1969 (Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC), but in 1985 the FCC, packed with Reagan appointees, released its infamous "Fairness Report" declaring the Fairness Doctrine "obsolete" and "no longer serving the public interest." Two years later, the same FCC declared that they would no longer enforce it. No court challenge, no nothing, fairness bad, 4-1 vote, and that's it.
Mind you, two almost-successful attempts were made to bring it back. In 1988, a bill to restore the Fairness Doctrine passed in the Congress, but did not get enough votes to override Reagan's veto. The second attempt was in 1991, but then a veto threat from Bush Sr. was enough to stop it.
So, it's been effectively dead for almost 25 years. Some people talked about reviving it, especially in the wake of several scandals that happened around 2004 (when several broadcasters tried their worst to hand the presidential election to Dubya, and FCC didn't do squat). Although, quoting John Hudson,
in the last 24 years, the specter of its nightmarish return has been a perennial bogeyman for talk radio hosts. Though some Democratic legislators occasionally voiced support for making the regulation a law (e.g. Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer), it's never been more than a pipe dream. "This is so stupid and it's never going to happen," Bill O'Reilly said last year, at the peak of a particularly paranoid week of Fairness Doctrine frenzy.
What's happening now...
On May 31, the House Republicans wrote to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, asking him to formally strike the Fairness Doctrine from the agency's rulebook.
Today, it was revealed that Genachowsky (a 2009 Obama nominee) wrote a letter to Fred Upton, the Republican chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saying that the Fairness Doctrine "holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas.” He further wrote...
I fully support deleting the Fairness Doctrine and related provisions from the Code of Federal Regulations, so that there can be no mistake that what has been a dead letter is truly dead.
So what does this mean?
Not much in principle, it's a doctrine that has not been enforced, but the symbolic meaning of the action is, at least in my opinion, most sinister - it codifies the control of corporations over the media and strips all the vestiges of their obligation to serve the public interest.
And what should we do?
Here is the FCC comment form, for whatever it's worth. There is no "Fairness Doctrine" subtopic open for comments, so I fired off some choice words (polite) under "Future of Media."
I am also going to write a letter to the President (nicely print it on paper, sign, mail, the whole works) and ask him to fire Genachowski, since Mr. Genachowski clearly serves the corporations, not the People.
12:23 AM PT: Thanks to the Rescue Rangers for selecting this to be featured in Community Spotlight!
10:08 AM PT: Thanks to the commenters and recommenders (rec list, huh?) for the interesting discussion. Many good points, especially regarding the disastrous consequences of media deregulation after 1996.