Fairness Doctrine Now! Will it really hush Rush?

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

We cannot blame this one on the media. There was no spin, no agenda setting, and no spiral of silence powerful enough to excuse the electorate. We re-elected a government engaged in an incompetent “war” on terror and an immoral one on the people of Iraq. Television fully displayed the lack of leadership skills of the present president when it broadcast the debates. The people saw and the people voted. Why talk of the Fairness Doctrine?

Television is not to blame, but television, and the rest of media are not blameless. So let us talk of the doctrine. When it was in force the Fairness Doctrine stipulated the Federal Communications Commission’s desire that every station owner broadcast matters of public controversy and give time to those with differing viewpoints on these controversies. Its reinstatement will not, nor cannot, change the media landscape by itself. Yet, surprisingly for a doctrine that was never vigorously enforced and has not been enforced at all for seventeen years, it has resurfaced. A quick Lexis-Nexis search finds the Fairness Doctrine popping up 28 times in the last year. Print outlets from the Boston Globe to Daily Variety evoke the doctrine as a sign of a kinder, gentler time. Quite obviously it is in the air because our media are so patently unfair. When Fox chooses to use the motto “fair and balanced,” it has already lied twice.

All media watchers have accumulated a list of grievances from the last cycle. The sins of commission, such as libeling Senator Kerry’s war record in issue ads, are more tangible but no less pernicious than the sins of omission (for example; cable’s refusal to show Fahrenheit 9/11 before the election). My list just touches the tip of the iceberg. Your list probably doesn’t exhaust it either. The point is whether the Fairness Doctrine could have helped.

Let’s look at its history. The Federal Communications Commission was already embarrassed in 1949 by the failure of American commercial broadcasters to honor the “public interest, convenience or necessity” mandate of various communications laws. They therefore stipulated that at the time of the license renewal they would ask station owners if they had provided coverage of vitally important controversial issues and had given reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on these issues.

The Reagan administration came to power in 1981 determined to rescind this rule along with others that had accumulated in the FCC’s attempts to widen the range of voices on American airwaves. Mark Fowler became chair of the FCC and he voiced the ingenious and more than slightly Orwellian argument that the Fairness Doctrine was counter-productive. Here the logic was that the second prong of the doctrine (to provide contrasting viewpoints) was so burdensome that station owners avoided controversial issues altogether. Rescind the doctrine and the airwaves would be full of issues of vital importance!

Researchers filed studies that showed the opposing viewpoint problem was not burdensome in any meaningful degree, all it had done was occasion some grievances and minor court cases for the multi-billion dollar industry. But Fowler, Reagan and their allies were undeterred and they killed the doctrine in 1987. The outrage of Congress was expressed in several subsequent attempts to pass the doctrine into law but Reagan successfully vetoed the strongest attempt, George H.W. Bush turned back another attempt and Clinton lost interest.

Therefore we can now test the truth of the Reagan promise that vitally important issues would now flourish. Hmmm…. TV networks have cut back their news divisions radically and therefore have almost nothing informative to say about foreign matters. Radio has consolidated and has less and less to say about local matters. Indeed local television news has little to report about local matters beside who got murdered and how to restore your wooden gable.

The one area where the Reagan promise might look like it was fulfilled is commentary on national issues, to the superficial witness. Since 1987 there has been an explosion of TV media punditry and radio talk shows. The number one topic is national news and political anger. The most famous: Rush Limbaugh went from Sacramento local anger-meister to national scold in this time period. Indeed he claims attempts to revive Fairness would “hush Rush.” In other words, these are attempts to silence the talk show genre. So is the Reagan/Fowler logic vindicated?

No. Not at all by Rush or his ilk. TV punditry and talk-radio are precisely why the Fairness Doctrine had two prongs. It is not enough to broadcast matters of public concern and controversy. There must be a response within the same channel or network. After all one cannot respond effectively to a 100 watt amplified voice with a tiny little blog whisper. Susan Drucker and Gary Gumpert have, just a year ago, justified a revival of the doctrine by arguing that we suffer from a qualitative scarcity of access to mass media.

Indeed it is not just for the benefit of the oppositional voice that we want a response. It is the anticipation of response that motivates us to fully formulate our reason for a position and makes us think more sharply. When we know there will be no effective response, it is human nature to indulge in shorthand slogans, rather than full arguments.

TV pundits do not give us arguments on the polite Washington Week type shows. They give us reports about other people’s arguments. They often do so in the context of evaluating the motivations for the argument rather than the argument itself. Television teaches us to be meta-critics before it teaches us to judge the merits of the original argument. The rude shows such as The O’Reilly Factor, do feature direct arguments although the format of short time spans and encouraged interruptions are there to heighten the entertainment factor, not to serve public “necessity.” Rude shows that feature dominant hosts undermine the ability to be thoughtful.

The importance of the Fairness Doctrine is not eviscerated by the fact that it will always fall short of giving us truly public-spirited television. Its importance is that to reinstate the doctrine is the high-minded fight to restore ideals to mass media. The doctrine will show a general political commitment to a public sphere of mutual listening and mutual talking. It is a fight for once broadly accepted simple ideals such as this one that will reinvigorate a democratic media, not a search for an impotent third way or an acceptance of the corporate media status quo. Perhaps the saddest thing about politics in the age of media consolidation is that Republicans feel they no longer have to listen to Democrats or any other oppositional voices. They don’t listen because they know the post-doctrine media will also ignore these voices. The fact that they don’t listen has led them to make repeated mistakes in their foreign and domestic policy, not only mistakes of convention, but also mistakes of competency.


Drucker, Susan and Gary Gumpert. (Spring 2003). “Scarce, Scarcer, Gone! What’s with the Fairness Doctrine?” Television Quarterly. 33(4) 10-15.

U.S.Congress. (1987, April 7th). Broadcasters and the Fairness Doctrine: Hearings of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.

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Fairness Doctrine

Please feel free to comment.


  • Wasser hits a lot of the head on the nail, especially when saying “The point is whether the Fairness Doctrine could have helped” and then admitting that the answer is probably not. Remember New York Times Co. v. Sullivan or Red Lion Bdcstg v. FCC? these cases that went before the Supreme Court explored these very issues and in the name of free speech and freedom of the press, these cases only seem as headaches and a time in a different era.

    Today, television is oversaturated with superfluous content that keeping up with all that the Fairness Doctrine could truly entail, just wouldn’t work, as Wasser explained.

    But with all the prevalent issues before the FCC, as someone concerned with the ‘public interest’ and what can be done from a policy perspective, coporate interest and control will have to be subject to more accountability. As long as the FCC Chairman continues to equivocate localism with greater ownership power, so as to prioritize the corporate bottom line, we have a long way to go before ‘fairness’ can be re-discovered.

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