On June 8, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Julius Genachowski agreed to wipe the Fairness Doctrine completely off the agency's books, even though the rule has been officially dead since 1987. House Republicans have long pushed to get the Doctrine off the rule books for good, and they've finally gotten their way.
From the time it was put in place in 1949 until its demise in 1987, the Fairness Doctrine required holders of broadcast licenses to provide the public with news and public affairs programming, and present opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. Back then, the airwaves were dominated by the "big three" networks ABC, CBS and NBC -- which broadcast over publicly-owned airwaves under licenses issued by the government. The idea behind the Fairness Doctrine was to keep broadcasters from monopolizing the airwaves with a biased viewpoint, and assure that those entrusted with the public airwaves broadcast a diversity of viewpoints on important issues.
A Positive Legacy
By mandating equal time for opposing viewpoints, the Fairness Doctrine helped foster and maintain an informative media environment. One example was the part the rule played in informing people about the health hazards of smoking.
In 1967 -- three years after the Surgeon General first conclusively linked cigarette smoking to fatal lung disease -- a law professor named John Banzhaf wrote the FCC and complained that under the Fairness Doctrine, TV stations broadcasting cigarette ads should be required to run anti-smoking public service announcements (PSAs) to represent the opposite point of view -- that smoking is a health hazard. The FCC agreed, and ordered TV stations to provide free air time to anti-smoking PSAs at a ratio of one anti-smoking ad to every five cigarette ads they showed.
Even at this five-to-one ratio, the resulting PSAs were entertaining and effective. There was the famous "Like Father, Like Son" ad, and the creepy, disturbing "Johnny Smoke" ads. One ad showed a Marlboro-style cowboy unable to draw his gun from his holster because he was seized by a coughing fit. In another, Bill Talman, the actor who played the losing district attorney on the famous Perry Mason TV series, looked straight into the camera and said, "I didn’t really mind losing those courtroom battles. But I’m in a battle right now I don’t want to lose ... I’ve got lung cancer. So take some advice about smoking and losing from someone who’s been doing both for years. If you haven’t smoked, don’t start. If you do smoke, quit. Don’t be a loser." Talman, who appeared ill and tired in the ad, died while the PSA was running, which amplified the ad's impact.
In the three years those hard-hitting anti-smoking PSAs ran, U.S. per capita cigarette consumption plummeted. Cigarette companies, facing more anti-smoking PSAs as well as legislation to force them to take their ads off TV, agreed to voluntarily pull their ads off TV in January, 1971.
Another example of the Fairness Doctrine in action occurred in 1983, when ABC ran a chilling anti-nuclear war movie called "The Day After." The movie angered some prominent conservatives, like Henry Kissinger, who argued that the willingness to use nuclear weapons served to deter war. Kissinger was able to respond to the movie on national television, when the TV show Nightline followed a showing of the movie with a group discussion that included Kissinger and other conservative commentators. ABC was so even-handed -- presenting both liberal and conservative viewpoints on nuclear war -- because the Fairness Doctrine required them to be.
The Fairness Doctrine also gave rise to years of funny editorial spoofs on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update.
The real beauty of the Fairness Doctrine, though, was that it created a diverse environment on every channel in which viewers could not help but encounter a variety of opinions. No matter what channel viewers watched, they were exposed to a spectrum of opinions that encouraged them to acknowledge the existence and consider the validity of alternate points of view on important current issues.
The Demise of the Fairness Doctrine
By the 1980s, TV networks started complaining that the Fairness Doctrine overly-burdensome. While the rule didn't block opinions (but rather encouraged them), some journalists argued it was a violation of First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press. Some reporters chose not to cover certain controversial issues so they could avoid the rule's requirement of presenting contrasting viewpoints.
Despite this, the Fairness Doctrine enjoyed broad popular support across many factions of the political and cultural spectrum for many decades. In fact, it was so popular that in 1987 a bill to make the Doctrine into a law passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming support -- and President Reagan vetoed it. He then had the FCC repeal the Fairness Doctrine completely.
The demise of the Fairness Doctrine led to a polarized media environment and the rise of opinion-stars like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and others. It has contributed to an AM radio talk show environment that is almost completely dominated by conservative pundits.
If big media corporations really had a liberal bias as some politicians argue, then big media companies would have pushed to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, since it would have given them a greater voice. Instead, their actions have been the opposite: big media corporations have fought all attempts to bring back the Fairness Doctrine in any form.
Now the FCC has wiped the Doctrine completely off its books, as though attempting to wipe out a part of U.S History.
With the Fairness Doctrine now officially dead and gone, along with it dies a legacy of balance and even-handedness in mass media that served the country very well while we had it.