Balancing free speech

Years ago, broadcasting was an expensive and rather exclusive business.

Early on, the FCC recognized that the power of the airwaves matched that of the print media, so it took extreme measures to ensure that broadcasters offered balanced political views to their listeners. For example, if one candidate for office was given time on the air, then the FCC mandated that the opponent be given equal time.

The Mayflower and Fairness doctrines

The FCC first began controlling editorial content on the airwaves in 1940, when it enacted a federal law named the Mayflower Doctrine. The purpose of this doctrine was to prevent broadcasters from editorializing content. The commission did not want broadcast owners brainwashing mainstream America with their opinions.

In 1949, not under any kind of law, the FCC began enforcing a rule of its own called the Fairness Doctrine. Under this self-imposed, almost parental-like, governance, the 2881 radio stations and the paltry 98 TV stations of the time were required to give equal airtime to everything. In effect, it was like having a town hall meeting on any development affecting local people. The FCC's reasoning behind the Fairness Doctrine was that broadcasters held their licenses as public trustees.

While the Fairness Doctrine was in practice, the FCC rarely got involved in any disputes between the public and broadcasters. And the Mayflower Doctrine was ignored by most broadcasters.

Power to the public

The Fairness Doctrine was successful in terms of helping the public. In 1976, the station owners at WHAR, a radio station in West Virginia, refused to cover any of the Congressional debates about strip mining because they deemed the topic too controversial. Listeners used the Fairness Doctrine to their advantage, and in the end, the listeners won; WHAR covered the debates.

The doctrine was a powerful tool for the general public. And it made the airwaves a fairer place at a time when the industry was evolving.


But the Fairness Doctrine didn't last forever. In 1982, WTVH-TV in Syracuse, NY, aired advertisements that promoted the Nine Mile Island nuclear power station as a wise investment for the state. The Syracuse Peace Council, a local association, demanded equal time to the advertising. (The council said that what was being advertised as a “wise investment” of about $400 million would actually end up costing taxpayers more than $5 billion.) The FCC intervened and insisted the station give the group equal airtime.

WTVH refused to give the council equal airtime because it said the Fairness Doctrine was not an actual federal law. The Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals ruled in favor of WTVH, citing that the FCC's Fairness Doctrine contravened the First Amendment of free speech. This ruling was a turnaround from a Supreme Court judgment in 1969, which stated that the doctrine was both constitutional and essential to democracy.

A new kind of news

The Ronald Reagan administration did not favor legislation or rules that impeded business growth. So in August 1987, the FCC discontinued use of Fairness Doctrine.

The removal of the Fairness Doctrine opened the way for one-sided cable channels, where pundits who think they are reporters can make claims without presenting the other positions.

During both the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations, the House and Congress passed bills to enact the Fairness Doctrine as a federal law. It was vetoed by the White House on both occasions, which says a lot for bias and little for democracy.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant on the West Coast.

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