In a bold move to ensure fairness and balance in the media, Lisa McCormick is leading an effort to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine was a guideline that required television and radio stations to provide equal time to both liberal and conservative viewpoints.
The policy was in place from 1949 to 1987, but was eliminated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the Reagan administration.
The Fairness Doctrine required that stations provide balanced coverage of all controversial issues of public importance, but it was different from the Equal Time Rule, which is still in effect for candidate appearances on broadcast stations.
By contrast, “equal time” or “equal opportunities” stems from a different source in the Communications Act – the Section 315 provisions on the treatment by broadcast stations (and local cable systems) of candidates for public office.
Essentially, equal time requires that, if a broadcast station gives one candidate free time, all other candidates can get the same amount of free time but bona fide news and news interview programs are exempt from equal time, and the FCC has taken an expansive view of that exception that largely undermines the concept, especially since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling sanctioned corporate spending that influences voters.
The demise of the Fairness Doctrine played a major role in fomenting partisan media tribalism, spawning today’s hyperpolarized journalism, and frequently spreading false and dangerous information.
“After its repeal, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Fox News quickly emerged to become two of the most influential political institutions in the US, the cornerstone of a right-wing media ecosystem of radio shows, cable networks and online platforms that would flourish in the coming decades,” said Nicole Hemmer. “The problem with this idea is that the Fairness Doctrine emerged in a time when the central concern was the scarcity of platforms; now, misinformation and disinformation flourish in an environment of abundance.”
The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to provide balance and fairness in their coverage of controversial issues by giving equal time to opposing viewpoints. It was established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949 and was in effect until it was abolished in 1987.
In the decades that followed World War II, the big three television networks dominated the news. Together with a few major metropolitan newspapers, they set the tone for the national conversation.
On half-hour evening news shows, anchors informed the country as a whole, striving to offer little to no partisan commentary. Sunday morning programs featured interviews with different politicians; occasional specials offered a deep dive on a particular topic. But on virtually all these programs, journalists steered clear of a partisan perspective.
Under the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters had to ensure that different viewpoints on controversial issues were presented and that the public was exposed to a diversity of opinions.
This meant that if a station aired a program on a controversial issue and presented one side of the argument, it had to provide an opportunity for opposing views to be aired as well.
The doctrine was based on the notion that the television networks were “public trustees.” Licensed by the federal government, they ought to serve the entire nation, the argument went, by airing competing perspectives on controversial issues.
While the policy had been intended to foster a full and fair debate, in practice it led networks to avoid employing anchors or reporters with obvious biases and to play most issues down the middle.
Supporters of the Fairness Doctrine believed that it was necessary to ensure that the public had access to a diversity of opinions on important issues, and that this was crucial for the functioning of democracy. They argued that broadcasters had a responsibility to provide balanced coverage and that the Fairness Doctrine was an important tool in achieving this goal.
Critics of the Fairness Doctrine, on the other hand, argued that it was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. They also contended that it was not necessary for broadcasters to provide balance, and that the market would naturally provide a diversity of viewpoints.
Others say that reinstating the Fairness Doctrine won’t fix current political media crises, and it won’t stop conservative media’s worst offenses.
In addition, they argue that the Fairness Doctrine had a chilling effect on speech, as broadcasters were reluctant to cover controversial issues for fear of triggering the requirement to provide equal time for opposing views.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the Fairness Doctrine, with some politicians and activists calling for its reinstatement.
Supporters of the Fairness Doctrine argue that the media is more polarized than ever, and that the Fairness Doctrine is needed to ensure that the public has access to a diversity of opinions. Critics, however, maintain that the Fairness Doctrine would stifle free speech and limit the ability of broadcasters to cover controversial issues.
McCormick believes that the current media landscape is too biased and that the Fairness Doctrine would help to provide a more balanced perspective.
McCormick’s position is shared by such luminaries as former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Senator Bernie Sanders, among other advocates.
“It’s important that we have a media that is fair and balanced,” McCormick stated. “The Fairness Doctrine is a common-sense policy that would ensure that all voices are heard.”
Conservatives have criticized the effort, arguing that it unfairly targets their viewpoints. They contend that Hollywood, academia, new media, and mainstream media are already dominated by liberal voices and would not be subject to these regulations.
“It seems like whenever Democrats are elected to serve as President and take control of Congress, there is talk about the revival of the Fairness Doctrine as some panacea for restoring balance and civility to political debate,” said David Oxenford, an attorney representing radio and TV broadcasters and webcasters on regulatory, transactional and music licensing issues. “In recent weeks, we have seen many articles blaming conservative talk radio for the current divisions in the country and for the widespread belief in discredited claims about political and social topics.”
Despite the pushback, McCormick remains committed to the cause. She believes that the Fairness Doctrine is an essential policy that will help to ensure that all Americans have access to a diverse range of perspectives.
“We need to have a media that reflects the diversity of our country,” she stated. “The Fairness Doctrine is one way to ensure that all voices are heard and that we have a media that is truly fair and balanced.”
The Supreme Court upheld the doctrine. In 1969’s Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, journalist Fred Cook sued a Pennsylvania Christian Crusade radio program after a radio host attacked him on air. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld Cook’s right to an on-air response under the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that nothing in the First Amendment gives a broadcast license holder the exclusive right to the airwaves they operate on.
The doctrine stayed in effect, and was enforced until the Reagan Administration. In 1985, under FCC Chairman, Mark S. Fowler, a communications attorney who had served on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign staff in 1976 and 1980, the FCC released a report stating that the doctrine hurt the public interest and violated free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Fowler began rolling the application of the doctrine back during Reagan’s second term – despite complaints from some in the Administration that it was all that kept broadcast journalists from thoroughly lambasting Reagan’s policies on air. In 1987, the FCC panel, under new chairman Dennis Patrick, repealed the Fairness Doctrine altogether with a 4-0 vote
The FCC vote was opposed by members of Congress who said the FCC had tried to “flout the will of Congress” and the decision was “wrongheaded, misguided and illogical.” The decision drew political fire and tangling, where cooperation with Congress was at issue. In June 1987, Congress attempted to preempt the FCC decision and codify the Fairness Doctrine, (Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987 S. 742).
The bill passed but the legislation was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. Congress was unable to muster enough votes to overturn the President’s veto.
As the debate over the Fairness Doctrine continues, McCormick and other advocates are working to build support for the policy and push for its reinstatement. They believe that it is a vital step in ensuring that the media serves the needs of all Americans and provides a balanced and diverse range of viewpoints.