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In defense of the Fairness Doctrine – defending a more equal media

January 18, 2011

I’ve been thinking for a while about doing a piece about the Fairness Doctrine.  As a UK citizen and with an interest in American Media and having visited American Media outlets on trips to the US, I have often been amazed at how journalism in America is not focused on the story but on the opinion of the story.

This is of course very different from the UK standard – not that we do not have opinions – look at our publications and you will see the left, right and center are all represented in our media.  However one thing separates us from being in line with American media – our journalistic ethics and standards which means that holding an opinion does not mean one can get away with slander, libel etc and media has to be beholden to accuracy and standards in factual reporting.

My first trip to America, my husband and I took a tour of NBC studios in New York.  The tour guides were very pleasant and as they told us, did tours to supplement their studies to become journalists and they both hoped to be working at the NBC empire once they had finished their studies.  One of the things that the tour guide said that amazed both myself and my husband, (he is still an active journalist at the BBC and I have moved from journalism as a full time venture) was that their lead anchor edited his own news.  He was the person who wrote the news and edited it for accuracy. No one checked his work so what he wrote, what he said, went out without a second look – no one verified his work.

Now we all know, as writers, that it’s often good to get someone to go over your work – especially if you are trying to present an argument which supports all facts. As a journalist my husband has to make sure all work is submitted to an editor before his work is made live to make sure all sides are represented in the story, to make sure any legal arguments have been dealt with and that ethics are adhered to.  All BBC journalists go on courses throughout their career to make sure they are up-to-date with libel laws etc.

That doesn’t mean their work is always without fault – it happens sometimes but at the same time if a fault is found further training is given.  Because for journalists in the UK the code they must adhere means readers are more likely to be guaranteed of reading or seeing a news piece that is fairly covered.  And if it is not and if someone feels a story has been written that portrays them unfairly – then they can take it to the Press Complaints Commission.  Although this is a self-regulated body which some still believe should not be – and I agree – those being investigated should not be investigated by their own in my view – the PCC has upheld many complaints and dealt with the publications that have violated these standards.

This is not as some would suggest a violation of freedom of speech – after all the publications are still in place. What this standard does is ensure that the reader or viewer etc, is represented with all sides, fairly and accurately at all times.

And this takes me over the US.

In the US, no law exists to protect the integrity of the story anymore.  Once there did – this is the Fairness Doctrine.

Established in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was to ensure that broadcast companies, of which there were only three at the time (NBC, ABC, CBS), operated in the fairness of the audience – meaning that the media at all times adequately informed citizens of important news of public issues and that all news must be fair in reflecting opposing views.

However the Doctrine was set on a case by case basis meaning it was not mandated.  An attempt to do so during the Reagan years saw it vetoed by the President in 1987.

The life of the Fairness Doctrine had not been easy with several court actions which questioned it’s constitutionality, especially with what many saw as it being a violation of the First Amendment right.

For example, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC,  (1969).  This established that broadcast stations could not be regulated without good reason. It argued that the FCC’s doctrine which established that all media must represent both sides – ie: give fair coverage, violated their rights – infringing “the speech of the station’s editorial judgment”.  Specifically to a clause within the Fairness Doctrine by the FCC which added “equal time rule” and a “response to personal attack” rule.

The FCC won their case here with the Justice, Byron White declaring:

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others…. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount (Epic.org)

This was because at the time there were still only a limited number of stations.  Justice White did warn that if the doctrine ever restrained freedom of speech then it’s constitutionality would be called into question.

Which is fair – as with the UK equivalent, the right to speak should not be stopped as long as the right to rebuttal is always given and the utmost is done to retain the facts.

But in 1984, with the Reagan Administration, FCC Chairman Mark S. Fowler, a Reagan appointee, worked to revoke the Doctrine not for what he saw as partisan reasons but because he believed it violated the 1st Amendment.

As he told Mark Levin in 2009, he explained his staff’s position at the time to Reagan by explaining that the Doctrine was the one thing that kept the main stations from ripping completely into the President:

The only thing that really protects you from the savageness of the three networks — every day they would savage Ronald Reagan — is the Fairness Doctrine, and Fowler is proposing to repeal it!

But Reagan did repeal it.

And in 2000, the Doctrine’s last hold on the media – the personal attack rule – was removed.  This now meant media had an open forum to attack anyone they saw fit without, as they had to previously, provide a full transcript to the subject of the attack and no chance to rebuttal.

In fact the only thing that really stands now is the Equal Time Rule.  This is a political ruling which means broadcasters must provide equal opportunity to an opposing candidate if they request it.  The only exceptions are “if the air-time was in a documentary, bona fide news interview, scheduled newscast or an on-the-spot news event the equal-time rule is not valid”.

Because of private ownership and more importantly big corporations hold on media – with less and less game players which has seen in America for example, the dominance of the Rupert Murdoch empire News Corps, the media landscape has changed but not necessarily as Rush Limbaugh would have you believe because of the revoking of the Fairness Doctrine. As Dr Mark Lamont Hill points out:

“the rise in conservative radio has been paralleled by an equally sharp drop in local ownership over the past twenty years. Since the 1980s, the number of large media companies has shrunk from over fifty to lesser than ten. At the same time, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, locally owned networks have been swallowed up by companies like Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations around the country. This reorganization of ownership has rendered the market anything but free.

Simply put, conservative radio dominates because American people don’t have a choice.”

One of the many myths that are used against the reinstalling of any kind of Fairness Doctrine is its impact on talk radio,.  But as Fair.org points out:

Nor, as Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly claimed, was the Fairness Doctrine all that stood between conservative talk-show hosts and the dominance they would attain after the doctrine’s repeal. In fact, not one Fairness Doctrine decision issued by the FCC had ever concerned itself with talk shows. Indeed, the talk-show format was born and flourished while the doctrine was in operation. Before the doctrine was repealed, right-wing hosts frequently dominated talk-show schedules, even in liberal cities, but none was ever muzzled (The Way Things Aren’t, Rendall et al., 1995). The Fairness Doctrine simply prohibited stations from broadcasting from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views.

As the Fair.org article goes on to say, in reference to the Fairness Doctrine and it’s seeming violation of the 1st Amendment:

In a Washington Post column (1/31/94), the Media Access Project (MAP), a telecommunications law firm that supports the Fairness Doctrine, addressed the First Amendment issue: “The Supreme Court unanimously found [the Fairness Doctrine] advances First Amendment values. It safeguards the public’s right to be informed on issues affecting our democracy, while also balancing broadcasters’ rights to the broadest possible editorial discretion.

The removal of the Fairness Doctrine has seen less and less fairness to the issues and more and more focus on networks being the voice piece for one opinion or another – just look at fans of MSNBC or Fox whose arguments always include “your station is the mouthpiece of the Republicans/Democrats”.

Talk radio, backed by major money backer’s, many of whom are conservative in their nature, have seen an explosion in right-wing talk shows.  The biggest names being Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ollie North etc – and many of whom also go on to television networks, most notably Fox, to double down on that view.  So for example, Glenn Beck has five hours a day of unfettered broadcast, with no one on to oppose his views.

In 2002, Edward Monks, a lawyer in Eugene Oregon, conducted a study of two local radio stations in his area. He found “80 hours per week, more than 4,000 hours per year, programmed for Republican and conservative talk shows, without a single second programmed for a Democratic or liberal perspective.”  He concluded “Political opinions expressed on talk radio are approaching the level of uniformity that would normally be achieved only in a totalitarian society. There is nothing fair, balanced or democratic about it.”

Robert Kennedy Jnr argued in his book Crimes Against Nature, that “The FCC’s pro-industry, anti-regulatory philosophy has effectively ended the right of access to broadcast television by any but the moneyed interests.”

This is borne out by many who argue for its reinstatement.

In 2007, the Center for American Progress and Free Press, released the first report of its kind which showed the political make-up of talk radio. The report (which you can read here), was entitled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio”.  It raised serious questions about whether companies who are issued licences to broadcast where addressing the needs of all Americans.

As the report states:

In the spring of 2007, of the 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial station owners, 91 percent of the total weekday talk radio programming was conservative, and only 9 percent was progressive.

– Each weekday, 2,570 hours and 15 minutes of conservative talk are broadcast on these stations compared to 254 hours of progressive talk — 10 times as much conservative talk as progressive talk.

– 76 percent of the news/talk programming in the top 10 radio markets is conservative, while 24 percent is progressive.

Now Conservative’s will have you believe that this is a corporate issue and a choice issue. They use the demise of Air America as an example.  They argue that people want to listen solely to a conservative view – if they didnt’t liberal stations would flourish.  However as the report goes on to state:

Our conclusion is that the gap between conservative and progressive talk radio is the result of multiple structural problems in the U.S. regulatory system, particularly the complete breakdown of the public trustee concept of broadcast, the elimination of clear public interest requirements for broadcasting, and the relaxation of ownership rules including the requirement of local participation in management.

This is not a view shared by the Conservative media.  As National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg argues:

“Does anyone really believe liberals would even entertain this renewed passion for the fairness doctrine if talk radio were overwhelmingly liberal? It just strikes me as so transparently opportunistic and unprincipled.”

Rasmussen in 2008, commissioned a poll which found that 47% of American’s favor a “Government Mandated Political Balance on Radio and TV”.

Nearly half of Americans (47%) believe the government should require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary, but they draw the line at imposing that same requirement on the Internet. Thirty-nine percent (39%) say leave radio and TV alone, too.

But the Fairness Doctrine remains safely locked away and according to the Obama Administration, they have no plans to reinstate it.  Which also debunks a Conservative myth that the Left – championed by Obama, do want to see it in effect.  The Left do, for good reasons, Obama does not. And in February 2009 the Senate voted 87-11 to keep federal regulators from instituting it.

Their arguments for this vote were according to CBS; “Reinstating the doctrine, they argue, would destroy their industry because radio stations that now largely air conservative talk shows would be forced to air liberal shows – which are not as popular and thus not as profitable.”

Despite this no one actually wants to stifle free speech – what people want to see is an end to unbridled one-sided speech.  It is not helpful to the populace and many polls show that bias on media stations can influence the viewer negatively.  For example polls in 2007 and 2010 have shown Fox viewers are the “least informed”.  Surprisingly to some but not to others, the 2007 poll found that viewers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show were more informed.

The 2010 poll came after a series of memos leaked from Fox, that issues such as health care and the environment were to be spun in a light more favorable to the Republican agenda.

To be fair the 2010 poll also showed that MSNBC viewers – a channel more favored by the Left – were also misinformed. But this equally highlights my point.  The Fairness Doctrine to be reinstated would help create more balance – not just because people would be represented by two views instead of one, but because they would be able to make a more informed opinion based on more informed reporting of all the facts, not just the ones that favored a particular agenda.

Since the shootings in Arizona the call to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine have been ramped up – especially with many calling for an end to violent rhetoric.  Conservatives believe this will silence right-wing radio, but as I showed earlier, right-wing radio thrived with the Doctrine in place.  The right would also have us believe that in a free market we can not reinstate the Doctrine because that would force them to take on unpopular liberal shows – but doesn’t that say more about the corporate takeover of media – profit before all the facts?

But others will argue without it, all you will hear – left or right – is propoganda without journalistic truth. After all what is really wrong with hearing all sides of the argument on one show? The corporate, free market hold has meant profits are put before a voice therefore if a show can not make the millions that say a heavily syndicated show like Rush Limbaugh can make – it is removed, regardless of whether it is serving a genuine purpose. With FCC fees running into five figures and more, it is understandable that big corporations who have the money have been able to dominate the airwaves.

The Fairness Doctrine was not perfect and was abused by government and program directors alike – whether it be to force and agenda on the airwaves or make sure unpopular shows were only heard on the graveyard shift but without it, there is no balance – the scales are one sided.

However as with the UK’s journalistic standards, those who are for the Doctrine’s return argue that all it will do is make sure journalists do their job and not those of the corporation that is pushing it’s own agenda – see my comment about the Fox leaked emails earlier. And it would mean people like Rush Limbaugh could not bloat on and on without anyone being able to call him out.  After all if you view is watertight, surely it will hold up to scrutiny and you will be able to defend it.

The Guardian in a 2008 article pointed out that the Fairness Doctrine was gone, and for good reason but it didn’t let the current state of media off the hook.

The article’s author Craig Aaron stated that:

Political imbalance on the radio dial shouldn’t be blamed on the fairness doctrine’s demise. The real culprit is runaway media consolidation. The biggest companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus have swallowed up hundreds of local stations, shuttering newsrooms and supplanting local talent to pipe in the same cookie-cutter, mostly conservative content from coast to coast.

He went on to say:

Both the left and the right widely agree that the corporate media is too concentrated and ignores local needs. Instead of policing content, Congress and the FCC should adopt policies to increase the diversity of owners…We also need to open up the airwaves with policies that allow more low-power and other community radio stations. …Rather than trying to limit the range of opinions, we should be working to foster as many alternatives as we can imagine. The public debate we should be having is about how well the media is serving our communities and bolstering our democracy.

I agree the Fairness Doctrine as it was is defunct but the idea prevails – more should be done to open the airwaves therefore ensuring more views are heard.  The core principles of the Fairness Doctrine should be restored – IE: restoring the ruling against personal attack and allowing the right to reply.

No one should be afraid of standards in media – standards do not mean an end to free speech – it just means the airwaves can not be used to shout fire all the time.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. afrankangle permalink
    January 19, 2011 12:34 pm

    As usual, your level of research continues to impress me. Needless to say, this post is a learning experience in itself.

    Bottom line for me is simple:

    1) Consolidation of the media has fueled the conservative talk show market, a market that is financially successful.

    2) People are just as biased as the media because the people tend to tune to media that proclaims their views.

    3) For myself, I hold the ultimate power by choosing what I tune in to.

    I seldom tune into talk radio because I can’t stand the host’s bias and the unlimited stream of a babbling public … and in my city (Cincinnati), we have one of the leading local conservative talking heads (Bill Cunningham, WLW). I used to like talk radio when it made me think, but not now.

    The Fairness Doctrine seemed to fade away, and when that happens, bringing something back is difficult.

    Thanks for making me better informed!

  2. January 18, 2011 10:34 pm

    Excellent Post. Right wing/Conservative radio heads are so bombastic, its enough to give and any other Liberals a headache.

    • January 19, 2011 9:47 am

      Thanks Don and thank yuo for the extra promotion on your site – have added you to my blogger links. And agreed – there is an unfair inbalance in talk media – and it’s having a nasty influence on the populace – just listen to the arguments everyday Joe’s use – you know full well whom they are a fan of by listening to them regurgitating talking points – opinions are fine but when they become a threat to reporting and proper journalism???

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