Early in the process of opening up the public airwaves to private broadcasters, something called the “Fairness Doctrine” was established by the FCC to govern the use of broadcast spectrum. The Fairness Doctrine has two basic components:
- Public interest programming – broadcasters must seek out and report on issues of interest to the community.
- Equal time – broadcasters must treat opposing points of view equally. And if you say something bad about someone, they have the right to respond on your air.
The first thing you might ask yourself is, why can the government apply these rules to broadcast radio and, later, television when they cannot apply similar restrictions to newspapers and other forms of communication? The basis for the FCC’s mandate in this matter is that the airwaves are owned by the public, and when the government grants someone the right to exclusive use of those airwaves, the licensee has an obligation to do so in the public interest. Because there is only a very limited amount of spectrum available, and, thus, only a few people can have the right to broadcast in any given market, there is an obligation that they report fairly and in a way that serves the public at large.
Whenever new technology hits the market, it takes some time for society to adjust and figure out how to fit the shiny newness of it into our existing frameworks. Broadcast was seen as new, scary, and in need of regulation. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated radio and television and the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. Had its time passed?
The thing is, there is pretty much no way to defend the Fairness Doctrine against a First Amendment challenge. It is a blatant government restriction of content. Many in the industry argued that the doctrine produced a “chilling effect” — stopping broadcasters from reporting on controversial issues because of the difficulty and potential liability involved. There are many reasons to dislike the idea of the Fairness Doctrine, and to want it gone. In addition, the environment has changed drastically. Instead of having half a dozen or more newspapers in every major city, we now have one or two. And instead of three major broadcast networks, we have five (or maybe six, depending on how you count), dozens of cable channels, hundreds of satellite channels, lots of radio stations, and, of course, the internet.
And yet, there is reason to yearn for the good old days of the Fairness Doctrine. Sure it made newsmen’s lives difficult, it made editorializing difficult, it made coverage difficult, but all of these difficulties pale in comparison to what we have today. We have partisan hackary all around, an incredible amount of consolidation in the media marketplace, news as entertainment, blatant falsity being passed off as truth, a lack of fact checking and fairness and balance and civility and — this is the important one — responsibility.
Really, the idea of the airwaves as a public trust is the right one. Now we have reached a point where the airwaves are, for pretty much all puposes except indecency, under private control. But those are our airwaves, damnit! We deserve better!
Sure, the Fairness Doctrine has a lot of flaws. But really, look at what replaced it. Can we really say that we are better off? Personally, I want my airwaves back.