FAIRNESS DOCTRINE

“The idea that somebody’s home-made Internet content can ever have the wide audience and reach of a big city newspaper, a television network like Fox or a radio show like Rush Limbaugh’s is merely a variation of the old argument that the rich and the poor are equally free to sleep under a bridge.

Under today’s privatized, hyper-concentrated American media system, the views of those with money and power are disproportionately represented. Those who oppose American imperialism and pro-corporate trade policy, and who advocate labor rights and serious pro-consumer regulation of corporations, have to struggle to be heard at all.

To say Americans don’t need the Fairness Doctrine because opinions censored by private owners of big media companies can still appear somewhere on the Internet – even though only a tiny fraction of the public will ever encounter them – is to proclaim the absolute right to forward only opinions of the plutocrats and oligarches controlling the industrial-military-media-corporate complex.” – Mark Gabrish Conlan

In the wake of Republican defeats in the 2008 elections right wing radicals fought among themselves over how to revive their movement. Edwin Feulner of the Heritage Foundation says not to worry: “If you want to see when (neo)conservatives were in trouble, go back 35 years to 1973, the year the Heritage Foundation set up shop. We were just a handful of people in a few rented rooms. At that time there were no cable outlets like Fox News. There was no (neo)conservative talk radio, because the Fairness Doctrine was still in effect.”

From the birth of the broadcasting industry, the airwaves – from which most Americans obtain their news – were regarded and regulated as a public trust, a communal resource like the clean air and clean water, the commons.

The Federal Radio Act of 1927 required that broadcasters, as a condition of their licenses, operate in the public interest by covering important policy issues and providing equal time to both sides of public questions.

Those requirements evolved into the powerful Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that the broadcast media has a duty to maintain an informed public. Broadcasters had to set aside time to air program content that was community-based and program content made for children. The rules set were weighted to encourage diversity of ownership and local control.

The Fairness Doctrine governed television and radio for most of the twentieth century.

In the 1960s the Federal Communications Commission and the courts applied the Fairness Doctrine to require cigarette manufacturers to include the surgeon general’s warnings in their television and radio advertisements, and polluters to notify the public when advertising a polluting product. Advertisers of gas guzzling automobiles, for example, had to provide rebuttal time for public interest advocates to debate the impact of wasteful fuel consumption on our environment and public health.

“The clear intent was to prevent a monopoly of commercial values from overwhelming democratic values – to assure that the official image of reality – corporate or government – was not the only image of reality that reached the people.” – Bill Moyers

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Fairness Doctrine in the Red Lion case in 1969, confirming that it is “the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters which is paramount.”

Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1988 as a favor to the studio heads that supported his election.

A Syracuse, New York, television station had broadcast nine paid editorials advocating the construction of a nuclear power plant. When the station refused to air opposing viewpoints an anti-nuke group complained. The three Ronald Reagan appointees who ran the Federal Communications Commission sided with the television station, applying the same laissez-faire philosophy to the airwaves as the Ronald Reagan administration did to the other parts of the commons.

They reasoned that the recent proliferation of cable television allays the Supreme Court’s concern that listeners and viewers have access to diverse sources of information.

Broadcasters would henceforth be under no obligation to air views that opposed their own.

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