The fairness doctrine

It's commonly accepted that the rise of Rush Limbaugh on the nation's radio airwaves coincided, more or less, with the fall of the FCC's "Fairness Doctrine" - a federal rule that radio stations, which use publicly owned frequencies, had to present both sides of an issue in a balanced and fair manner. That rule disappeared in the late 1980s, and it wasn't long before the radio marketplace decided that there was real money to be made in airing hours and hours of conservative talk shows - which, in turn, is given some credit for things like the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994.With that, here's an account of Sen. Dianne Fienstein's [appearance on "Fox News Sunday":][1]With conservative talk radio blasting Republicans and Democrats for their support of immigration reform, Feinstein said she is exploring whether to revisit the "fairness doctrine," which, before being abolished in 1987, required that broadcasters present controversial issues in a balanced manner.*"I think there ought to be an opportunity to present the other side. And unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way," Feinstein said. "I do believe in fairness. I remember when there was a fairness doctrine, and I think there was much more serious, correct reporting to people."*(Sen. Trent) Lott, who was the subject of withering criticism on talk radio for his general support for immigration reform, said he opposes a fairness doctrine and that it is up to senators to do a better job of communicating why they do what they do."We never bother to explain what we're trying to do and what is in it. I think that was the mistake that was made with immigration. Talk radio defined it without us explaining that there were reasons for it and the good things that were in it," he said. "So the onus is not on them, it's on us to do a better job of communicating what we're trying to do."I don't really have an opinion on this - except to note that a revival of the fairness doctrine might dramatically alter the talk radio landscape. What do you think? [1]: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/the-talk/2007/06/june_24_immigration_partisans.html?hpid=news-col-blogs

Comments

thetomdotdot 15 years ago

I don't wake up every day as a Trent Lott fan, but he hit a bullseye this time.

We the people deserve talk radio. Talk radio did not create itself. I favor a doctrine that would certainly alter the landscape of talk radio. And that is if you don't have your facts, be silen..

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Terry Bush 15 years ago

I have always been a huge fan of the 1st Amendment. Even if/when I do not agree with the content one iota, I think that we should not ever discourage speech of any type. (The exception, of course, being yelling "FIRE" in a crowded room). Anyone who thinks the speech is libelous has a potential cause of action.

The cure for contested content by any exercise of free speech rights (on the radio or any other way) is more speech by someone else (or a quick flick of the wrist to turn off the radio/tv). If the same logic applied when it came to printed media, some conservative type legislators should be calling for "fair" stories in that medium.

I hope that the majority of law makers see through this ploy. Any restraint on free speech is a very slippery slope.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

How is this a slippery slope? The country operated under the fairness doctrine for years until Reagan. And anyhow, this issue is different for printed media. With radio, you have a limited number of frequencies that can be used. With print, the philosophy goes that anyone that has a counter viewpoint can buy their own printing press and make their voice heard. With radio, if you're not getting access on a station, which is using the airwaves which are supposed to belong to The People, that is a problem. One cannot just start their own radio station. Too many broadcasters would muddle the signals and prevent others from being heard clearly.

Look at these links for an illustration of how bad it is. http://www.crooksandliars.com/2007/06/21/the-conservative-spirit-of-the-radio/

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2007/06/pdf/talk_radio.pdf

The issue isn't about balance on a particular topic. The issue is balance of time. The hosts should be free to discuss what they want and no one is calling for balance on a particular topic or for anyone to be censored, this is an issue of allowing The People access to what is theirs, the airwaves.

Terry Bush 15 years ago

So those who have purchased radio air time should give those who oppose the views espoused on one radio station equal access to the air waves? Or perhaps it would simply be better to ban political talk shows or comment on the radio all together? That would certainly make all things equal. So why is it OK to require equal time for all view points on the air waves and it is not OK to do the same things to speech expressed through other means?

Do we require that kind of balance with printed media or TV (make the owners of the station/paper)? Must the owners of TV and/or print media give equal time/space to any private persons with private opinions? TV air waves must be purchased and approved by the government also - so do we require that all TV shows provide both sides of all arguments?

Can't the owner of a newspaper print his/her opinion every day, without being required to print the "other side's" view point?

While I am 110% in favor of getting all the facts I can gather, on any and all topics, I am also 110% against any restrictions or limits on the use of free speech. As Nadine Strossman (former President of the UCLA) spoke about when she visited KU Law school in the 80's - any time we start limiting or placing rules upon the content(or amount) of anyone else's speech, because we disagree with the message or the messenger, we risk losing our own dearly protected free speech rights (thus she, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, defended her group's legal defense of the KKK etc.).

Any attempt to take away someone's legally owned property (e.g. air time) in order to force them to provide view points they do not support is a restriction on free speech (and use of private property). I am pretty sure the ACLU won't take up such a case, but the principles are the same. Those who do not want to listen to the talk radio can turn it off - or go on a station that they like to listen to in order to espouse their view points. I am pretty sure that anyone who pays enough $$ can buy air time some where!

Joel 15 years ago

Terry: Technically the federal government owns the airwaves -- anybody who purchases airtime is pretty much just "renting" it ... and landlords can put conditions on leases, generally. ... It's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison with newspapers. Do you think that's wrong?

That said, Chris: Air America's troubles suggest there's not quite the same audience (or advertiser support for) a left-of-center message on the airwaves. So even though the public owns the airwaves, why force the private owner of radio station to subsidize unprofitable speech?

I'm playing devil's advocate here, folks....

OtherJoel 15 years ago

"I am pretty sure that anyone who pays enough $$ can buy air time some where!"

That's absolutely true. So I guess it's OK that people who don't have enough money to buy this air time should not have free speech?

By definition, any attempt to try to maintain fairness contradicts freedom -- the trick is balancing the two. That's usually why we have various forms of government regulation. Some isn't great; some is vital. Talk radio has failed miserably in terms of self-regulation, so if the government wants to step in and try to balance things out, more power to them. I don't see it as censorship; I see it as quality control. Rush can still spew his hate as much as he wants; he just wouldn't go unchecked.

15 years ago

Christ wrote: "no one is calling for balance on a particular topic..."

You may not be, but that's what the Fairness Doctrine is. It's not about liberals and conservatives having equal time, it's about "requiring that public issues be presented by broadcasters and that each side of those issues be given fair coverage." (Red Lion v. FCC, 1969). Each issue, not political philosophy or party, is the measurement whereby fairness is measured.

And while I agree with Joel that the government has the power (and maybe the right thru "ownership*") to tell broadcasters what they must broadcast, that's far more dangerous, IMO, than having one side of a political debate underrepresented in a specific medium. When Congress shall make no law restricting the freedom of speech, it means no restrictions or it means nothing at all.

  • though how they gained ownership of a frequency is never quite explained. Do they also own the color blue and the number 9?

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

Terry said: So why is it OK to require equal time for all view points on the air waves and it is not OK to do the same things to speech expressed through other means?

Because the airwaves should not be completely privatized. They belong to the people. With print someone can start their own publication. With the internet, someone can start their own blog or news site.

Terry said: Can't the owner of a newspaper print his/her opinion every day, without being required to print the "other side's" view point?

Yes, are you missing the point that there is a difference between airwaves and paper? This isn't about print.

Terry said: TV air waves must be purchased and approved by the government also - so do we require that all TV shows provide both sides of all arguments?

This is a newer issue due to the growth of satellite and cable, but before cable, the FCC required that in order for broadcasters to be able to use the airwaves, they had to provide some content for the public good, which is how we got 5pm news casts. The broadcasters would have much rather had entertainment shows to capitalize on that time slot, but the gov't worked in our best interest and required they inform the masses w/ news. Of course this was prior to CNN and the "crossfire"-style era of cable news, so there wasn't as big of a deal about "balance" in the news. Journalism is journalism when done right.

15 years ago

Well, Chris wrote that too..

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

Terry said: Any attempt to take away someone's legally owned property (e.g. air time) in order to force them to provide view points they do not support is a restriction on free speech (and use of private property).

Once again, the airwaves are owned by you and me and every other tax paying American. They aren't private property.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

Joel said: That said, Chris: Air America's troubles suggest there's not quite the same audience (or advertiser support for) a left-of-center message on the airwaves. So even though the public owns the airwaves, why force the private owner of radio station to subsidize unprofitable speech?

Not to get off topic, but I think a discussion of Air America's troubles wouldn't be complete without discussing the nature of the advertising industry. When the industry's biggest advertisers are energy, pharma and automotive companies, and your station is constantly discussing the need to regulate those industries, it makes things difficult for your sales staff.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

El_B,

there's a big (though nuanced) difference between fairness and "balance."

Balance gets you stories like "Holocaust: Good or Bad?"

What the fairness doc does is says for example, for every hour of conservative talk, you need an hour of liberal talk. The topics they discuss can be unbalanced, unless the talkers in a particular slot want to set something straight. Though it won't be presented in the "balanced" way, it'll just be an fair allotment of airtime.

15 years ago

Chris: "What the fairness doc does is says for example, for every hour of conservative talk, you need an hour of liberal talk. The topics they discuss can be unbalanced, unless the talkers in a particular slot want to set something straight."

Dude, that's not what it says. Here's the Supreme Court case that dealt with it (and upheld it) back in the 60s, Red Lion vs. FCC:

"The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has for many years imposed on broadcasters a "fairness doctrine," requiring that public issues be presented by broadcasters and that each side of those issues be given fair coverage."
http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=395&page=367

It's not only the first line of the case's intro, it's also the first line of the opinion of the court. That's what the fairness Doctrine has always been - a balance of opinions based at the issue level*.

You can argue that a balance of liberal vs conservative time** is what you'd consider fair, but when people are talking about bringing back the the Fairness Doctrine, they are either talking about bringing back what was or they are talking about something different altogether. It sounds to me like you've assigned a familiar name to something different altogether.

  • Which, of course, makes it worthless. I'd be all for democracy so long as I could choose the questions, and I'm sure radio stations that want to quash a certain opinion don't mind two-sided discussions of different public issues of their choosing.

** Do moderates get a half-hour from each side or do they get only half time?

15 years ago

It's amazing, however, how short political memories are, as the Museum of Broadcast Communications reminds us who the original opponents of the Fairness Doctrine were, and why:

"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." http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/F/htmlF/fairnessdoct/fairnessdoct.htm

Maybe Congress should pass a law against unintended consequences while they are fixing the problem of imbalance in opinions.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

El_B,

I see what you're saying. From what i understand, those supporting reintroduction of the fairness doctrine are not demanding that Rush Limbaugh provide balance to his opinions during his show, for example. They are demanding equal time to counter his opinions. The balance would be over the course of a day, not within one particular broadcasters program.

This is most-likely a different set up than what existed prior to the 80s and if it existed wouldn't be called the fairness doctrine. However, due to the realities of talk radio today, we will likely never get back to where we were. So, i guess you're right that they wouldn't be introducing the fairness doctrine as it once existed, what they are asking for is a debate about how things are now and a step or two towards a better system.

thetomdotdot 15 years ago

"Once again, the airwaves are owned by you and me and every other tax paying American. They aren't private property."

Like LB pointed out, no-one "owns" the airwaves any more than anyone "owns" the air or the ability to vibrate it. The government may regulate the right to broadcast, and oversee the content (see Janet Jackson wardrobe incompetence), but the ultimate test is we the people. We are at once Tax Paying Americans and Consumers. Sure, if left to the marketplace, it's entirely possible that wardrobe incompetence would become epidemic, and its a good thing the FCC is there to protect us and our children from the nipple. Censorship is critical to civilization.

But.

Talk radio is certainly biased to the right. So what? How is that harmful? How could it be otherwise? Every issue would have to be weighed for counterpoint and evaluated for public reaction prior to broadcast. Ummm... who does this? Government editors?

No thanks.

PS: After those government editors finish balancing talk radio, I wonder if they could looking into getting me something to watch on broadcast television at lunchtime besides Jerry Springer. Thanking them in advance.

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Chris Tackett 15 years ago

a friend passed along this link which clears up some of the logistics about how the fairness doctrine was used

from here: http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0212-03.htm

"There are many misconceptions about the Fairness Doctrine. For instance, it did not require that each program be internally balanced, nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view. And it didn't require that the balance of a station's program lineup be anything like 50/50.

...

Typically, when an individual or citizens group complained to a station about imbalance, the station would set aside time for an on-air response for the omitted perspective: "Reasonable opportunity for presentation of opposing points of view," was the relevant phrase. If a station disagreed with the complaint, feeling that an adequate range of views had already been presented, the decision would be appealed to the FCC for a judgment.

According to Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of MAP, scheduling response time was based on time of day, frequency and duration of the original perspective. "If one view received a lot of coverage in primetime," Schwartzman told Extra!, "then at least some response time would have to be in primetime. Likewise if one side received many short spots or really long spots." But the remedy did not amount to equal time; the ratio of airtime between the original perspective and the response "could be as much as five to one," said Schwartzman.

As a guarantor of balance and inclusion, the Fairness Doctrine was no panacea. It was somewhat vague, and depended on the vigilance of listeners and viewers to notice imbalance. But its value, beyond the occasional remedies it provided, was in its codification of the principle that broadcasters had a responsibility to present a range of views on controversial issues."

OtherJoel 15 years ago

OtherJoel said:

Posts...coming...too...fast.....

15 years ago

"It was somewhat vague, and depended on the vigilance of listeners and viewers to notice imbalance. "

And does anyone doubt that, if re-instituted in whatever form, it would simply become another political tool used by "vigilant" listeners to drive people who hold opposing opinions off the air*? After stations get tired of calls from the FCC every month and hiring staff to schedule all the rebuttals in specific time periods, they're going to switch to a 24-hour "Music of Your Life" format and to hell with it all.

But at least that horrible, hateful Rush will be off the air.

  • and to enrich lawyers. We can never forget to enrich the lawyers.

Terry Bush 15 years ago

Whenever I hear any argument for or against a particular course of conduct that requires the government to impose new rules upon a segment of the population, I like to ask those who are requesting the rules one thing - if the shoe were on the other foot (i.e. you were the ones being made subject to the rules) would it still be a good idea?

In other words, would the proposed "fairness" doctrine be one equally favored if the talk radio shows were predominately represented by extremely far left speakers with far left view points? Would you still support the doctrine? Be honest now.

As for the people ultimately owning the air waves, thru the FCC, that may be true, but the LICENSE that they purchase, the one that allows one particular station (or another) to make use of those waves, is dearly paid for (on a regular basis). That license is in fact a protected property interest.

Anyone who wants to bid for a license to operate their own station to express their own views is welcome to do so. Unless you are saying that the FCC doesn't grant licenses except to far right station owners?

There are still probably a ton of radio licensee holders who would love to put more liberal speakers on for people to listen to - BUT they will only do so if they were able to turn a profit. If having a liberal talk show host doesn't pay off in terms of $$, why is that so? Are the far left listeners less supportive in terms of sponsorship $$?

The fact of the matter is that we are still living in a country where free speech rights and private property rights are dearly guarded (so far). Giving up either one is always a dangerous thing to do.

If and when we choose to enact laws or support policies that result in someone else having to give up their rights, to get what we want from them or the system, that's the "Slippery slope" that soon leads to other people taking similar pot shots at our rights. What we ask of others, we must be willing to first give (or give up) ourselves.

Joel 15 years ago

Wow. I go away for an hour or two and come back to a pretty fierce discussion.

I do agree with Terry that these discussions look different depending on whose ox is being gored.

Dotdot: I have to disagree on one point. I think it's pretty much a settled legal matter - going back to the 1920s, in fact - that the public, through the government, owns broadcast spectrum (the airwaves). In a sense, that's kind of like owning the air, but it's true nonetheless.

thetomdotdot 15 years ago

You're probably right. Being a settled legal matter supersedes god and the laws of physics in my book too.

The 'ownership' translates to license fees and fines and a couple few thousand jobs. The public also owns the media. That ownership is expressed (for the most part, and lets just say) through ad revenues. This argument often plays as the little guy against the big greedy corporation, and thats where I call foul. Sitting in there cars, or at their desk at work, or at their home are millions of little guys tuned in to Rush everyday. My question is where do we have more power, as taxpayers or consumers? Feinstein may think it inconvenient that those little guys disagree with the bill she supports, but her call for 'balance' will only piss them off.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

it's interesting that the spark that led to so many pundits and news outlets discussing the fairness doctrine these past few days (the report put out by the Center for American Progress and FreePress, which i linked to above) does not actually call for the fairness doctrine to be reinstated and actually criticizes it for not being effective.

http://thinkprogress.org/2007/06/21/fairness-doctrine

i didn't really have another point to make, just found that interesting.

Joel 15 years ago

Well hell, Chris, why are we even talking about this?

Oh wait. Because Feinstein started it....

Dotdot, I think you have a good point. It seems like the marketplace of ideas has decided what it wants out of talk radio; I'm not entirely sure I buy Chris' argument that the advertisers are trying to kill "Air America" - it seems like advertisers generally want to try to sell their wares to the public, and points of view rarely get in the way of trying to make a buck. That's why Fox runs "The Simpsons."

Similarly, I think lefty folks would get cranky if there were attempts to regulate blogosphere speech - and there have been suggestions that such online commentary should be regulated by the FEC as "in kind" campaign contributions. Online, I'm told, the left tends to be more ascendant.

Like I said, I'm not trying to make a case for or against anything. But it's an interesting discussion.

Terry Bush 15 years ago

My point exactly Joel. I'm generally pretty middle of the road (seeing both sides) on most arguments. But I am decidely pro-free speech rights. And if it comes down to it, I personally believe that more people get more "information" via the internet then the radio these days. That may not be true (or stay true) but that's my opinion for what it is worth. So - before those who oppose the view points spouted on a radio start clamoring for some rules that would require those view points to get more air time (in any way) they might want to back up and think how much they'd support the same arguments when applied to internet sharing of "information" (view points) with which they may more readily agree! Different mediums, to be sure. But the same basic ideas have a way of spreading.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

Joel, it's an interesting topic, so i think it's good to discuss. Though i'm not sure if you saw the interview, but Lott brought it up, not Feinstein.

I didn't mean to imply we shouldn't discuss it. I just found it interesting and important to note that FreePress, who leads the charge on most of the media reform efforts, doesn't support a reinstatement of the fairness doctrine.

Joel 15 years ago

Phew. It is a good topic to discuss.

Sticking with my recent media blogging, tomorrow I'll reflect on the relationship between the military and the press.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

Joel,

re: the blogosphere, first, it's similar to print in that anyone can start up their own site if they want. Radio regulation is a different beast.

But looking at what regulation is being debated with regards to the internet, it isn't lefty folks upset, the Net Neutrality coalition is non-partisan, it's folks from organizations from all political leanings supporting Net Neutrality (see FreePress's savetheinternet.com campaign)

and re: the marketplace deciding anything, you've got to look at the numbers. Ed Shultz, a progressive talk show host, touched on the 'marketplace' talking point on Tucker Carlson's show and brings up the problem with station ownership and how the "marketplace will decide" meme is hollow: http://www.crooksandliars.com/2007/06/22/ed-schultz-on-right-wing-talk-radiotakes-a-swipe-at-hannity/

Re: air america and ad dollars, I don't mean to imply that's their only problem, but it is a legitimate problem. I just don't think you're ever going to have certain industries spending big bucks to advertise (and therefore support) a news outlet that is speaking out against their companies.

Chris Tackett 15 years ago

and just for fun, here's a clip from The Simpson's explaining the interaction between Fox Network and Fox News http://youtube.com/watch?v=pFtsfDjOGjs

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