“For a long time, the fairness doctrine has been sound asleep. In my opinion let it rest in peace,” said Jerald N. Fritz, General Counsel at Allbritton Communications Company, during a discussion panel on the fairness doctrine.
The panel, hosted by Judicial Watch, tackled the fairness doctrine policy head on in an effort to enlighten the public on the virtues and vices of the policy.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dissolved the fairness doctrine in 1987, stating that government interference into broadcast content prevented objective reporting of issues of public interest.
So one may wonder, why all the hullabaloo then? What is so important about this fairness doctrine anyway? Why, as media mavericks are quick to ask, does it keep rearing its “ugly” head time and time again?
Despite its revocation, the fairness doctrine, like an anathema, has stubbornly refused to be relegated to the background. It is like a time-bomb waiting to explode.
Established in 1949, the fairness doctrine’s purpose was to allow objective reporting of a controversial issue. In the words of FCC, “holders of broadcast licenses were to present controversial issues of public interest in an equitable, honest and balanced manner.”
However, in later years, there was need to revise the policy. Some saw it as an infringement of the First Amendment as evidenced by the numerous court cases that arose as a result of the policy. As Fritz points out, the fairness doctrine was intended to expand coverage of controversial issues, but instead was increasingly found to have the opposite effect as some journalists found it safe to refrain from reporting on controversial matters.
Many will concur that an environment free of political interference has contributed to the thriving of the U.S. media and the U.S. democratic system as a whole. As Fritz points out, “the U.S. is the only society in the history of the world that has ever enjoyed diverse media freedom.”
However, not everyone agrees with the idea of a free media. One cannot after all, as per the fairness doctrine itself, look at only one side of the coin. Over the years, there have been numerous calls to re-establish the fairness doctrine. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan vetoed a move by Congress to reinstate the policy. In 1989, it was President George H.W. Bush’s turn to reject yet another move by Congress to make the policy into law.
House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi has joined a furor of voices calling for reinstatement of the fairness doctrine.
As a concerned member of the media fraternity, it is my hope that what we are observing now is just another case of history repeating itself and that the fairness doctrine be allowed to rest in peace.
Speaking at the panel, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) pointed out that, “bringing back the fairness doctrine would amount to government control of political reporting.”
Rep. Pence is also the co-author of the Broadcaster Freedom Act and is a former radio broadcaster.