Should a 1940s-to-1980s rule mandating more balanced media be reinstituted?
Beginning in the earliest years of television, from 1949 to 1987, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required American television and radio broadcasters to present both sides — or all sides — of any political or social issue. It came to be nicknamed the Fairness Doctrine.
The Reagan-era FCC eliminated this rule, which was never reinstituted in subsequent decades under either party. Supporters of the rule’s elimination argued it helped the First Amendment and free speech, by eliminating forced speech or advocacy towards all sides — including sides a station’s ownership or management may have disagreed with.
On top of this, a subsequent Trump-era 2017 FCC decision loosened ownership restrictions on stations. In combination, these two decisions not only allowed given stations to present only one view, but for many stations nationwide — now more easily owned by the same conglomerate, such as the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group — to present the same view.
Opponents say that the Fairness Doctrine resulted in more balanced and impartial broadcast media outlets, and that eliminating it led to the rise of polarized media outlets which now have license to only broadcast one side if they choose — which in turn has led to a far more polarized country and electorate.
Indeed, the most prominent conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh debuted his national radio show a year later in 1988. The Fairness Doctrine applied only to broadcast licensees on television and radio and not cable. So, its presence or absence isn’t directly related to the rise of single-perspective cable news companies like Fox nor would its reinstatement affect them.
What the bill does
The Restore the Fairness Doctrine Act would once again mandate television and radio broadcasters present both sides when discussing political or social issues, reinstituting the rule in place from 1949 to 1987.
It was introduced in the House on September 19 as bill number H.R. 4401, by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI2), who’s also a Democratic presidential candidate.
What supporters say
Curiously, Rep. Gabbard appears to have said nothing publicly about the bill, virtually unheard of for coming from a lead sponsor of congressional legislation. She appears to have issued no press release, mentioned nothing about it on social media or interviews, nor brought it up at any presidential debate.
Supporters argue that the doctrine allowed for a more robust public debate, and affected positive political change as a result, rather than allowing only the loudest voices or deepest pockets to win.
“Nobody tells radio and television what to broadcast” specifically, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — now a U.S. senator, then a congressman — told the New York Times in 1987 when the doctrine was originally repealed.
‘’Unlike the print media, broadcasters have a license, something no one else can have,’’ former Rep. Mike Synar (D-OK2) told the Times in that same article. ‘’With that license comes responsibility.’’
“News judgment will increasingly reflect a business orientation,” a separate Times article at the time quoted advocate Ralph Nader as saying — noting that “women’s rights, the health effects of smoking, and the safety of nuclear power plants would have come to far less public prominence had the fairness doctrine not been in effect.”
What opponents say
While opponents are generally thought of as Republicans, grateful for the repeal of a rule which allowed for the rise of Rush Limbaugh, even some free-speech supporting Democrats are opposed.
“I think you will find the current Commission to be a great partner in the effort to ensure a free press, primarily by not intervening in the area,” Democrat-appointed FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a speech at 2017 Media Institute Luncheon.
“You are all likely familiar with the past, thankfully failed, attempts to insert the Commission as a watchdog to make sure news is being covered appropriately,” O’Rielly continued. “Though it should not have to be said, let me make it clear that the Commission currently has no role in regulating news content, and I would be opposed to any effort to give it that authority, via a resurrected Fairness Doctrine or other, more seemingly innocuous efforts.”
“Count me in as a staunch defender of the First Amendment despite any drawbacks it may present. So you can rest assured that news content is safe from any potential FCC filter in the name of the public interest.”
Odds of passage
The bill has not yet attracted any House cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Even if it were to pass the Democratic-controlled House, passage in the Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely.
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12/3/21 Update: as originally written, this article suggested that the removal of the Fairness Doctrine was causally related to the rise of single-perspective cable news companies like Fox. However, the Doctrine did not apply to cable, so that is incorrect. It did apply to radio though so its removal is linked to the rise of personalities like Rush Limbaugh.
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