Published on
the Philadelphia Inquirer

Renew the Fairness Doctrine

Tim Diago

With the old Fairness Doctrine, the Federal Communications Commission attempted to "ensure that all coverage of controversial issues be balanced and fair." The FCC took the view that radio - and later TV - licensees were "public trustees," and thus had an obligation to give reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on issues of public importance.

But strictly enforcing the requirement that stations allow all points of view was only one benefit of the Fairness Doctrine. Another was that the policy opened radio and TV to members of minority races.

The Fairness Doctrine, eliminated during the 1980s, is in the air again. Questions of whether there was "balanced and fair" coverage of the candidates in 2008 has sent waves of anger and perhaps fear through the ranks of conservative talk-show hosts. Perhaps that apprehension should also be felt by liberals and so-called progressives. Both sides were fairly liberal in their bashing of candidates whose views they did not share.

This wouldn't have happened under the Fairness Doctrine, when stations were required to keep track of the amount of time allocated to minority points of view. Those records were submitted at license renewal time, and helped determine if a station stayed in business. As a result, many stations began to air shows hosted and produced by members of minority races, including American Indians.

Around Indian country, white listeners and viewers were introduced to a perspective that had existed in their neighborhoods for years but was totally new to them. An American Indian point of view began to surface.

In Albuquerque, N.M., a Laguna man named John Belindo began a television show called The First Americans, a show I co-hosted on several occasions. When I moved back home to South Dakota, I brought the idea with me. In 1975, I started a weekly Northern Plains version of The First Americans at KEVN, a commercially owned station in Rapid City.

Bob Giago, an Oglala Lakota, and his wife then, Millie, a Laguna, were doing TV shows in Oklahoma City. Wallace Coffey, who later went on to become chairman of the Comanche Nation, also had a weekly TV show there.

Up in North Dakota, Harriet Skye, a Hunkpapa Lakota, was doing a weekly talk show on Bismarck TV. Over in Billings, Mont., a Nez Perce man named Ron Holt had a show called Indians in Progress.

None of us realized that these doors of opportunity had opened because of the Fairness Doctrine. We knew only that the doors were open, and we were determined to make the most of it.

Ron Holt discovered the power of the doctrine when he had the area director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on his show and was verbally accosted by a tribal leader demanding equal time. "I asked the station manager about it and he told me that I had better damned well give the tribal leader equal time because that was the rule of the Fairness Doctrine. It was the first time I heard about it," he said.

When the Fairness Doctrine came up for renewal in 1987, it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan, and vetoed again by the first Bush administration. The battle to shut the doors forever on the doctrine or to give it a new life is in the hands of Congress and the Obama administration. Will it be renewed or buried?

Tim Giago ( is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association.

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