Should the FCC Fairness Doctrine Be Restored?
By Doug Knowles
What is the “FCC Fairness Doctrine”? The following is from a TIME Magazine article in 2009. It was at a time when the Left was trying to get it reinstated as a method to take out conservative news programs and conservative view formats:
The act is rooted in the media world of 1949, when lawmakers became concerned that by virtue of their near-stranglehold on nationwide TV broadcasting, the three main television networks — NBC, ABC and CBS — could misuse their broadcast licenses to set a biased public agenda. The Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that broadcast networks devote time to contrasting views on issues of public importance, was meant to level the playing field. Congress backed the policy in 1954, and by the 1970s the FCC called the doctrine the “single most important requirement of operation in the public interest — the sine qua non for grant of a renewal of license.” (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
The Supreme Court proved willing to uphold the doctrine, eking out space for it alongside the First Amendment. In 1969’s Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, journalist Fred Cook sued a Pennsylvania Christian Crusade radio program after a radio host attacked him on air. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld Cook’s right to an on-air response under the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that nothing in the First Amendment gives a broadcast license holder the exclusive right to the airwaves they operate on. But when Florida tried to hold newspapers to a similar standard in 1974’s Miami Herald Publishing Co. V. Tornillo, the Supreme Court was less receptive. Justices agreed that newspapers — which don’t require licenses or airwaves to operate — face theoretically unlimited competition, making the protection of the Fairness Doctrine unneeded.
The doctrine stayed in effect, and was enforced until FCC chairman Mark Fowler began rolling it back during Reagan’s second term — despite complaints from some in the Administration that it was all that kept broadcast journalists from thoroughly lambasting Reagan’s policies on air. In 1987, the FCC panel repealed the Fairness Doctrine altogether with a 4-0 vote.
Congress has regularly tried to bring the doctrine back ever since. Reagan and George H.W. Bush both quashed Congressional initiatives by threatening vetoes, and a 2005 attempt to reinstate the doctrine didn’t make it out of committee. Now, with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House and with conservative talk radio hosts — long a thorn in liberal sides — taking to the airwaves to blast President Obama’s stimulus package, interest in the Fairness Doctrine is peaking once again.
It would appear that each and every time the Doctrine has been revisited in Congress and/or the FCC, it was because there was significant outrage over biased commentary presented and/or perceived as NEWS.
Although the Cambridge definition of News has nothing in it about fair and balanced or unbiased presentation of the Facts, the Cambridge definition of Commentary clearly includes things like opinion, or biased being involved in the presentation.
With consideration for all of this history and where we are today, what can we do to limit the blur of the line between News and Commentary, so people know what type of presentation they are actually reading, watching or hearing?
It is quite clear that the industry and/or trade as it exists today is failing miserably. Even with outlets like Fox News with slogans like “Fair and Balanced”, the line between News and Commentary is still blurred. There appears to be an effort to bring at least two sides of the issue with the commentary by bringing on guests that have leanings to the perceived different sides. As refreshing as it is, it is still Commentary and is misleading and considered by most to be News. The network still comes across as/and is referenced as a conservative News Network.
So we still sit here in the dilemma of what we as consumers can do to understand exactly what we are receiving. In a time of political climate of significant deregulation efforts by the Trump administration, it would appear that regulating the industry for that reason as well as constitutional issues, would be a difficult and undesired approach to the problem.
There has been a concept of regulation under the guise of Consumer Protection that has been much more palatable by both industries and consumers. This is commonly referred to as Truth in Labeling, Truth in Packaging and even Country of Origin. This method relies on the philosophy that we as consumers are tired of being sold a product that is or might be mislabeled or misrepresented.
In this way, it could also avoid the chance of government trying to define and regulate what type of slant is involved. Defining in NEWS and Commentary and requiring a clear label that people would know when listening, reading or watching they would know if it is News Or Commentary and be open to a more informed decision about the information being consumed.
The definitions within the industry are out there already in Journalism documents and teaching tools. Codifying those definitions in the legislation should be fairly simple and consensus between consumers and producers not very difficult. The only aspects that would need to be put into such legislation, is the Method of Labeling clearly and accepted procedures of such. As well there would be a need to set standards for enforcement and consequences of noncompliance.
Labeling could be as simple as a rating like is done now for content on television programs and movies in the theater and other places that they are consumed.
A video, after returning from Commercial breaks as well as prior to the start of the program or video would display a rating of News or Commentary. It would be simple to do the same thing verbally for a source that is in audio format. The printed material could have a disclaimer at the beginning of the document, article or book.
I do not believe most in this day and age really want more government control over their lives. But clearly, we need to know what is News (Nothing But The Facts) or Commentary (editorial, discussion of opinions or views).
These are my thoughts at this time with what I have researched on the subject. I would love to hear any other ideas and/or concerns that may arise after considering this article. It is merely an analysis and suggestion with what information is in hand. Exchange of Ideas is what makes for better solutions and I would like to hear from others.
Reprinted with permission from It Matters How You Stand
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