policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission that
became known as the "Fairness Doctrine" is an attempt to ensure
that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station
be balanced and fair. The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station
licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation
to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points
of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission
later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out
issues of importance to their community and air programming that
addressed those issues. With the deregulation sweep of the Reagan
Administration during the 1980s, the Commission dissolved the fairness
This doctrine grew out of concern that because of the large number
of applications for radio station being submitted and the limited
number of frequencies available, broadcasters should make sure they
did not use their stations simply as advocates with a singular perspective.
Rather, they must allow all points of view. That requirement was
to be enforced by FCC mandate.
the early 1940s, the FCC had established the "Mayflower Doctrine,"
which prohibited editorializing by stations. But that absolute ban
softened somewhat by the end of the decade, allowing editorializing
only if other points of view were aired, balancing that of the station's.
During these years, the FCC had established dicta and case
law guiding the operation of the doctrine.
ensuing years the FCC ensured that the doctrine was operational
by laying out rules defining such matters as personal attack and
political editorializing (1967). In 1971 the Commission set requirements
for the stations to report, with their license renewal, efforts
to seek out and address issues of concern to the community. This
process became known as "Ascertainment of Community Needs," and
was to be done systematically and by the station management.
fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications
Act of 1937 which required stations to offer "equal opportunity"
to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if
they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station.
The attempt was to balance--to force an even handedness. Section
315 exempted news programs, interviews and documentaries. But the
doctrine would include such efforts. Another major difference should
be noted here: Section 315 was federal law, passed by Congress.
The fairness doctrine was simply FCC policy.
FCC fairness policy was given great credence by the 1969 U.S. Supreme
Court case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC. In
that case, a station in Pennsylvania, licensed by Red Lion Co.,
had aired a "Christian Crusade" program wherein an author, Fred
J. Cook, was attacked. When Cook requested time to reply in keeping
with the fairness doctrine, the station refused. Upon appeal to
the FCC, the Commission declared that there was personal attack
and the station had failed to meet its obligation. The station appealed
and the case wended its way through the courts and eventually to
the Supreme Court. The court ruled for the FCC, giving sanction
to the fairness doctrine.
doctrine, nevertheless, disturbed many journalists, who considered
it a violation of First Amendment rights of free speech/free press
which should allow reporters to make their own decisions about balancing
stories. Fairness, in this view, should not be forced by the FCC.
In order to avoid the requirement to go out and find contrasting
viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists simply
avoided any coverage of some controversial issues. This "chilling
effect" was just the opposite of what the FCC intended.
the 1980s, many things had changed. The "scarcity" argument which
dictated the "public trustee" philosophy of the Commission, was
disappearing with the abundant number of channels available on cable
TV. Without scarcity, or with many other voices in the marketplace
of ideas, there were perhaps fewer compelling reasons to keep the
fairness doctrine. This was also the era of deregulation when the
FCC took on a different attitude about its many rules, seen as an
unnecessary burden by most stations. The new Chairman of the FCC,
Mark Fowler, appointed by President Reagan, publicly avowed to kill
to fairness doctrine.
By 1985, the FCC issued its Fairness Report, asserting that
the doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, might actually
have a "chilling effect" and might be in violation of the First
Amendment. In a 1987 case, Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the courts
declared that the doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the
FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. The FCC dissolved the
doctrine in August of that year.
before the Commission's action, in the spring of 1987, both houses
of Congress voted to put the fairness doctrine into law--a statutory
fairness doctrine which the FCC would have to enforce, like it or
not. But President Reagan, in keeping with his deregulatory efforts
and his long-standing favor of keeping government out of the affairs
of business, vetoed the legislation. There were insufficient votes
to override the veto. Congressional efforts to make the doctrine
into law surfaced again during the Bush administration. As before,
the legislation was vetoed, this time by Bush.
fairness doctrine remains just beneath the surface of concerns over
broadcasting and cablecasting, and some members of congress continue
to threaten to pass it into legislation. Currently, however, there
is no required balance of controversial issues as mandated by the
fairness doctrine. The public relies instead on the judgment of
broadcast journalists and its own reasoning ability to sort out
one-sided or distorted coverage of an issue. Indeed, experience
over the past several years since the demise of the doctrine shows
that broadcasters can and do provide substantial coverage of controversial
issues of public importance in their communities, including contrasting
viewpoints, through news, public affairs, public service, interactive
and special programming.
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Federal Communications Commission; Political
Processes and Television