Posted by: Joolz2u | June 8, 2008

The Fairness Doctrine

I spent a semester in England back in 1985. I was a Broadcast Communications major and the opportunity to study British broadcasting was one of the reasons I chose the college I did. At one point, we had to write a research paper comparing some facet of broadcasting between the British and American systems. I chose to write about the Fairness Doctrine.

What is the Fairness Doctrine? The Museum of Broadcast Communications explains:

The 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 doctrine.

The Brits didn’t have any such thing, and couldn’t really understand why I was so concerned with the FCC’s efforts to do away with it. It was this nagging dread that wouldn’t go away. I was obsessed with Mark Fowler (Reagan-appointed Chariman of the FCC) and his partners in evil who would conspire to rid the United States of government-enforced balance. I just knew in my heart of hearts that, try as they might to hide behind the First Amendment, the truth of the matter was those villainous Reaganites were really hell-bent on world domination. He who controls the airwaves, controls the minds of the masses.

Naturally, I was pretty much alone in my concerns over this seemingly small matter. And why, you may wonder, would I even think of it 23 years later? What would pluck good old Mark Fowler out of the deep recesses of my mind lo these many years hence? The Democratic Primary.

See, back in the olden days, say, when I was a kid, if a tv station sold a 30-second political ad to one politician, they had to sell a 30-second ad spot to his competitor. And if the competitor couldn’t afford the same number of ads as the first guy, then the first guy had to scale back to keep the playing field level. In addition, the Fairness Doctrine included under its umbrella of balance news programs, interviews and documentaries.

In terms of today, that would mean that Obama could not outspend Hillary by 4:1 in blanketing a market with political ads. And if Oprah were to, say, dedicate an entire hour to Obama (delicately skirting the prohibition of corporate donations), she would also have to offer an entire hour to Hillary. And McCain. And whoever the hell else might still be in the race. And if NBC ran an interview with Obama, they’d also have to run one with Hillary. And the interviews would have to be neutral and balanced. No network could blatantly favor one candidate over another. Of course, these regulations did not apply to cable, so Chris Matthews could still spew his misogynist garbage, but that’s another topic for another day.

I’ve wondered a lot lately how things would have turned out had we had the Fairness Doctrine in place during this primary. One thing I do know: the Democratic primary has proven the Republicans right: whoever controls the media controls the masses. 


  1. “ was pretty simple back when people actually posessed a measure of journalistic integrity.”

    I think journalistic integrity is an anachronism these days (IMHO). In an election where the media has a vested interest in one party, they are probably willing to step over whatever “lines” there “are”, yes? Say there are only two weeks left or less before the day of election and whatever media outlet runs an overtly biased story; how quickly will the bias be addressed? And further, when it comes to an election, regardless of whether or not the “infraction” is addressed (In Time, which is key), wouldn’t the damage have already been done? I would imagine in the calculus of the NYT they would see Obama’s winning the presidency as of more import than any fine they may incur later. Besides, it is the age of Thrasymachus: might makes right!

    This was a great post btw! …thanks for sharing!

  2. You’re welcome!

    As for the NYT, they aren’t a broadcast station, so they aren’t controlled by the FCC.

    But the real question is, does the network want to risk a multi-million dollar fine and the perception that their unethical behavior helped swing an election? Do they want to risk an advertiser backlash? Do they want to damage their journalistic credibility? Do they want to risk being known as the network whose news reporting can’t be trusted? Do they want to risk losing viewers to the networks who are perceived to be more ethincal and trustworthy? It really was a big deal back then. Of course, times have really changed, but it still would have been interesting to see how things would have turned out if Obama hadn’t been able to blanket certain markets with ads, while McCain runs much fewer (he’s got less money).

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