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Putting the Fairness Doctrine to rest

When the FCC first imposed the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters in 1949, it was meant to provide the listening and viewing public with fair and balanced viewpoints. Today, the Internet and the host of channels available mete out opposing views in abundance.

Although it hasn’t been enforced since 1987, the doctrine required broadcasters to present controversial issues and allow airtime for competing points of view. Recently, the FCC finally put the doctrine to rest.

Long before the Internet when the availability of media outlets was minimal, the concentration of power given to the few broadcasters made fairness an issue, noted Mark Grimm, former TV anchor and owner of Mark Grimm Communications. So although the Fairness Doctrine in principle was positive, other factors muddied the waters. “The longstanding problem, however was, who decided what is fair? The government? Since the president appoints the FCC commissioners, there was always politics in the equation. The Fairness Doctrine did at least nudge broadcasters to keep fairness on their agenda and therefore served a useful purpose,” he said. But when politicians tried to use the doctrine to retaliate against broadcasters, First Amendment issues were raised. “The nation’s strong affection for this fundamental right did limit what politicians might otherwise have attempted,” he said.

For those who believed the doctrine had the ability to quell free speech, it’s a victory. Since the doctrine meant broadcasters had to offer anyone with a difference in opinion air time, it could ultimately create a scheduling nightmare, noted Michael Hart, host for the Alabama-based WYDE-AM. “It would also encourage groups with opposing views to constantly monitor the airways looking for points to protest. The resulting broadcast bottlenecks would eventually compel broadcasters to seek less controversial topics unlikely to spur protest. It would discourage political/religious cultural discourse as well,” he said.

Had the doctrine been enforced the last 20 years, Hart believes political news talk would have ceased to exist. “The Fairness Doctrine would have been a threat to the likes of FOX News, but it would have also threatened networks such as CNN and MSNBC,” he said. “The biggest threat would not have been to the broadcast medium itself but to the American people that would no longer be exposed to differing viewpoints regardless where they may come down politically.”

For some broadcasters like Craig Curtis, program director at the Pasadena, Calif.-based KPCC-FM, the Fairness Doctrine was put to rest in 1987. “Even during the years the doctrine was in place, enforcement was inconsistent and haphazard due to the legal questions that swirled around it,” he said in an email interview.

But for others like Bob Cudmore, host for WVTL-AM in Amsterdam, N.Y., it took time to really believe that the doctrine would no longer plague him. “When the Fairness Doctrine enforcement was dropped, some of us were wary of believing it so I probably didn’t change much of what I did at first in 1987. I have always been a left winger but presented conservative views as well,” he said in an email interview. “I kept doing that but lost my radio job in favor of conservative syndicated talkers in 1993 who were going full bore with their own points of view. Since getting back into radio in 2001, I have felt some relief at not having worry so much about someone complaining about the Fairness Doctrine. Fairness to a large degree is in the eye of the beholder.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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