The Radio Act & Fairness Doctrine…in the news..80 years later

Having seen several articles on the Drudge Report, and listening to Hannity on KABC radio regarding a pending attempt by Sen Clinton and Speaker Pelosi to issue a gag order on conservative talk radio, I offer the following history of the Radio Act and the more commonly know Fairness Doctrine which followed in 1949. I guess they checked out our On Target series on the Cutting Edge where Ron Winship and I discussed the “Fairness Doctrine” in episode two last year. In that program I mentioned that former president Reagan’s administration scuttled the Fairness Act back in 1987. What Google articles have to say follows:

“From the beginning of commercial radio in the 1920s it was recognized that there were far fewer broadcast bands available than groups who would like to broadcast. Broadcast bands were licensed, not sold. Included in the license process was the provision that, where opinion was involved, the broadcaster would provide some opportunity for dissenting opinions. The Radio Act of 1927 required the Federal Radio Commission (forerunner to the FCC), to grant broadcasting licenses serving the “public convenience, interest or necessity.” In 1928 this became more explicit in requiring “due regard for the opinion of others.” In 1949 the Fairness Doctrine was adopted as a formal rule of the FCC. In 1959 Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to include the Fairness Doctrine, thus making it law.”

Another web report states:

“As former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson pointed out (California Lawyer, 8/88), it was in that spirit that the FRC, in 1928, first gave words to a policy formulation that would become known as the Fairness Doctrine, calling for broadcasters to show “due regard for the opinions of others.” In 1949, the FCC adopted the doctrine as a formal rule (FCC, Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, 1949).

In 1959 Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to enshrine the Fairness Doctrine into law, rewriting Chapter 315(a) to read: “A broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance.”

Fast forward to the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the following ruling:

“It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the government itself or a private licensee. It is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here. That right may not constitutionally be abridged either by Congress or by the FCC.

— U.S. Supreme Court, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 1969.

A decade later the United States Supreme Court upheld the doctrine’s constitutionality in Red Lion Broadcast-ing Co. v. FCC (1969), foreshadowing a decade in which the FCC would view the Fairness Doctrine as a guiding principle, calling it “the single most important requirement of operation in the public interest—the sine qua non for grant of a renewal of license” (FCC Fairness Report, 1974).

How it worked

There are many misconceptions about the Fairness Doctrine. For instance, it did not require that each program be internally balanced, nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view. And it didn’t require that the balance of a station’s program lineup be anything like 50/50.

Nor, as Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly claimed, was the Fairness Doctrine all that stood between conservative talkshow 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 talkshows. Indeed, the talkshow format was born and flourished while the doctrine was in operation. Before the doctrine was repealed, right-wing hosts frequently dominated talkshow 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.

In answer to charges, put forward in the Red Lion case, that the doctrine violated broadcasters’ First Amendment free speech rights because the government was exerting editorial control, Supreme Court Justice Byron White wrote: “There is no sanctuary in the First Amendment for unlimited private censorship operating in a medium not open to all.” 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.”

Indeed, when it was in place, citizen groups used the Fairness Doctrine as a tool to expand speech and debate. For instance, it prevented stations from allowing only one side to be heard on ballot measures. Over the years, it had been supported by grassroots groups across the political spectrum, including the ACLU, National Rifle Association and the right-wing Accuracy In Media.

Typically, when an individual or citizens group complained to a station about imbalance, the station would set aside time for an on-air response for the omitted perspective: “Reasonable opportunity for presentation of opposing points of view,” was the relevant phrase. If a station disagreed with the complaint, feeling that an adequate range of views had already been presented, the decision would be appealed to the FCC for a judgment.

According to Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of MAP, scheduling response time was based on time of day, frequency and duration of the original perspective. “If one view received a lot of coverage in primetime,” Schwartzman told Extra!, “then at least some response time would have to be in primetime. Likewise if one side received many short spots or really long spots.” But the remedy did not amount to equal time; the ratio of airtime between the original perspective and the response “could be as much as five to one,” said Schwartzman.

As a guarantor of balance and inclusion, the Fairness Doctrine was no panacea. It was somewhat vague, and depended on the vigilance of listeners and viewers to notice imbalance. But its value, beyond the occasional remedies it provided, was in its codification of the principle that broadcasters had a responsibility to present a range of views on controversial issues.

The doctrine’s demise

From the 1920s through the ’70s, the history of the Fairness Doctrine paints a picture of public servants wrestling with how to maintain some public interest standards in the operation of publicly owned—but corporate-dominated—airwaves. Things were about to change.

The 1980s brought the Reagan Revolution, with its army of anti-regulatory extremists; not least among these was Reagan’s new FCC chair, Mark S. Fowler. Formerly a broadcast industry lawyer, Fowler earned his reputation as “the James Watt of the FCC” by sneering at the notion that broadcasters had a unique role or bore special responsibilities to ensure democratic discourse (California Lawyer, 8/88). It was all nonsense, said Fowler (L.A. Times, 5/1/03): “The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants.” To Fowler, television was “just another appliance—it’s a to
aster with pictures,” and he seemed to endorse total deregulation (Washington Post, 2/6/83): “We’ve got to look beyond the conventional wisdom that we must somehow regulate this box.”

Of course, Fowler and associates didn’t favor total deregulation: Without licensing, the airwaves would descend into chaos as many broadcasters competed for the same frequencies, a situation that would mean ruin for the traditional corporate broadcasters they were so close to. But regulation for the public good rather than corporate convenience was deemed suspect.

Fowler vowed to see the Fairness Doctrine repealed, and though he would depart the commission a few months before the goal was realized, he worked assiduously at setting the stage for the doctrine’s demise.

He and his like-minded commissioners, a majority of whom had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan, argued that the doctrine violated broadcasters’ First Amendment free speech rights by giving government a measure of editorial control over stations. Moreover, rather than increase debate and discussion of controversial issues, they argued, the doctrine actually chilled debate, because stations feared demands for response time and possible challenges to broadcast licenses (though only one license was ever revoked in a dispute involving the Fairness Doctrine— California Lawyer, 8/88).

The FCC stopped enforcing the doctrine in the mid-’80s, well before it formally revoked it. As much as the commission majority wanted to repeal the doctrine outright, there was one hurdle that stood between them and their goal: Congress’ 1959 amendment to the Communications Act had made the doctrine law.

Help would come in the form of a controversial 1986 legal decision by Judge Robert Bork and then-Judge Antonin Scalia, both Reagan appointees on the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Their 2–1 opinion avoided the constitutional issue altogether, and simply declared that Congress had not actually made the doctrine into a law. Wrote Bork: “We do not believe that language adopted in 1959 made the Fairness Doctrine a binding statutory obligation,” because, he said, the doctrine was imposed “under,” not “by” the Communications Act of 1934 (Califor-nia Lawyer, 8/88). Bork held that the 1959 amendment established that the FCC could apply the doctrine, but was not obliged to do so—that keeping the rule or scuttling it was simply a matter of FCC discretion.

“The decision contravened 25 years of FCC holdings that the doctrine had been put into law in 1959,” according to MAP. But it signaled the end of the Fairness Doctrine, which was repealed in 1987 by the FCC under new chair Dennis R. Patrick, a lawyer and Reagan White House aide.”

While House Speaker Pelosi and Sen Hillary Clinton are not happy with Rush, Sean, O’Reilly, Larry Elder and others on the radio airwaves I don’t hear them screaming to halt free speech by left leaning professors in our high school and colleges, or any of the network TV anchors, cable news reporters who collectively lean so far to the left it reminds me of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa. Yet they want to muzzle talk radio. Is that their interpretation of “fairness?”

What’s next? Will they will try to muzzle bloggers whose opinion might impact their futures in the political arena?

What do Juice readers think about the left leaning Network and most cable news agencies and our right leaning radio personalities?

About Larry Gilbert