FAIRNESS DOCTRINE

The policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission that became known as the “Fairness Doctrine” is an attempt to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair. The FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were “public trustees,” and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. With the deregulation sweep of the Reagan Administration during the 1980s, the Commission dissolved the fairness doctrine.

This doctrine grew out of concern that because of the large number of applications for radio station being submitted and the limited number of frequencies available, broadcasters should make sure they did not use their stations simply as advocates with a singular perspective. Rather, they must allow all points of view. That requirement was to be enforced by FCC mandate.

From the early 1940s, the FCC had established the “Mayflower Doctrine,” which prohibited editorializing by stations. But that absolute ban softened somewhat by the end of the decade, allowing editorializing only if other points of view were aired, balancing that of the station’s. During these years, the FCC had established dicta and case law guiding the operation of the doctrine.

In ensuing years the FCC ensured that the doctrine was operational by laying out rules defining such matters as personal attack and political editorializing (1967). In 1971 the Commission set requirements for the stations to report, with their license renewal, efforts to seek out and address issues of concern to the community. This process became known as “Ascertainment of Community Needs,” and was to be done systematically and by the station management.

The fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937 which required stations to offer “equal opportunity” to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station. The attempt was to balance–to force an even handedness. Section 315 exempted news programs, interviews and documentaries. But the doctrine would include such efforts. Another major difference should be noted here: Section 315 was federal law, passed by Congress. The fairness doctrine was simply FCC policy.

The FCC fairness policy was given great credence by the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC. In that case, a station in Pennsylvania, licensed by Red Lion Co., had aired a “Christian Crusade” program wherein an author, Fred J. Cook, was attacked. When Cook requested time to reply in keeping with the fairness doctrine, the station refused. Upon appeal to the FCC, the Commission declared that there was personal attack and the station had failed to meet its obligation. The station appealed and the case wended its way through the courts and eventually to the Supreme Court. The court ruled for the FCC, giving sanction to the fairness doctrine.

The doctrine, nevertheless, disturbed many journalists, who considered it a violation of First Amendment rights of free speech/free press which should allow reporters to make their own decisions about balancing stories. Fairness, in this view, should not be forced by the FCC. In order to avoid the requirement to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every issue raised in a story, some journalists simply avoided any coverage of some controversial issues. This “chilling effect” was just the opposite of what the FCC intended.

By the 1980s, many things had changed. The “scarcity” argument which dictated the “public trustee” philosophy of the Commission, was disappearing with the abundant number of channels available on cable TV. Without scarcity, or with many other voices in the marketplace of ideas, there were perhaps fewer compelling reasons to keep the fairness doctrine. This was also the era of deregulation when the FCC took on a different attitude about its many rules, seen as an unnecessary burden by most stations. The new Chairman of the FCC, Mark Fowler, appointed by President Reagan, publicly avowed to kill to fairness doctrine.

By 1985, the FCC issued its Fairness Report, asserting that the doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, might actually have a “chilling effect” and might be in violation of the First Amendment. In a 1987 case, Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the courts declared that the doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. The FCC dissolved the doctrine in August of that year.

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