Rejoice, FCC Kills Fairness Doctrine

fairness doctrineFairness Doctrine Demise Gives Rise to the Public Interest

Wednesday, August 24, 2011, the FCC made it official: the Fairness Doctrine is dead and buried. But public interest obligations, on the other hand, are clearly alive and well!

The announcement about the final elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, (first made Monday but not officially codified until Wednesday,) came as no surprise to this writer. The rule, which provided that radio and TV stations must “provide coverage of vitally important controversial issues of interest in the community served by the station; and afford a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints,” was abolished by President Reagan’s FCC in 1987, but the language still remained in FCC literature.

President Obama has repeatedly said he did not support it, and the FCC, in its “Information Needs of Communities” report, released June 9, 2011, specifically called for Fairness Doctrine language to be removed from its books. Even FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a stalwart supporter of protecting the public interest, has told me for years that the Fairness Doctrine was, as he put it Monday, a “dead letter.”

It’s not like there’s been any serious talk about restoring it, (although Newt Gingrich supported the restoration of the Fairness Doctrine back in the Reagan years.) These days, the only people really talking about restoring the Fairness Doctrine were former right wing radio talk host Mike Pence, R-IN, who sponsored the Broadcaster Freedom Act , and right wing radio talkers like Sean Hannity, who have spent years on radio microphones trying to make the Fairness Doctrine a boogey man to the American people.

That’s not to say the demise of the Fairness Doctrine did not have an adverse effect. I produced public affairs programming under that rule at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, and found it very workable. I did not have to tell both sides of the story, I just had to try to do so. I also witnessed how, once it was abolished, TV programs that covered the local community just disappeared. And on the radio side, once the Fairness Doctrine went away, there is little question that Rush Limbaugh went hard right on a national microphone, attacking Democrats and anyone else who gets in the way of his pro-corporate right wing agenda.

Copycats soon moved in, creating an industry of right wing propagandists. In 90 percent of radio programming today, no real debate is allowed (unless a brave or committed few sneak past the microphone hoarders’ screeners.)

But the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t perfect. Part of the problem was it employed a top-down approach, with Big Daddy Government putting broadcasters in the untenable position of being liable for lawsuits even over content in comedy programs. (CBS was sued under the Fairness Doctrine when the Norman Lear character Maude had an abortion in the TV show of the same name; opponents sued, saying CBS must do other shows where women did not have an abortion.) Rather than face such reprise, some broadcasters chose not to cover any controversial issues at all, which many argue chilled debate rather than engendered it.

In August 2011, the final nail has been pounded into the coffin of the Fairness Doctrine.

But do not shed any tears: there is much to celebrate about Wednesday’s rule change. Wednesday’s FCC ruling shows the agency clearly understands that broadcasters do have an obligation to “serve the public interest,” which is critical. Note the following language in Wednesday’s official ruling:

[T]he FCC reasoned that the doctrine imposed substantial burdens on broadcasters without countervailing benefits. As a result, the FCC concluded that the doctrine was inconsistent with both the public interest and the First Amendment principles it was intended to promote

So what “public interest obligations” do broadcasters have? In January, 2009, as noted by Brad Friedman in, President Obama noted on the White House Technology page his goal to “clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.” But two and a half years later, neither the President nor the FCC has defined such obligations of broadcasters. So now, based in part on the FCC “Information Needs of Communities” report, which recommends citizen involvement in the process, there is a new movement for citizens of communities to define their own public interest obligations and demand them from their local broadcasters.


  1. says


    Who is really fighting for the public interest on media matters on the Hill? And why have they failed so badly?

    I think 97% of the citizens would agree that prescription TV ads must be done away with (again).

    I think the same number would support citizen review boards that decide which commercials get on, and which do not, according to their sensibilities, and a reasonable voting criteria set up.

    People are actually being harmed, particularly poor people who are hit with these shameless, fear laced ads that scare them into thinking they have one ailment or another, but can’t afford to get the test, etc, etc. Just one example. This is truly a harm. Another example: Circa two years ago, we are now seeing people crying…yes…weeping about how their mercedes saved their life, their acne sucked, etc.

    This is so incredibly tacky…and the citizens I think deserve to have right of first refusal in their regions on this garbage.

    Please tell me what you know, what the solution is, and how to speed it up as citizens.



  2. in_awe says

    What I fail to understand is why liberals rejoice when they can wield a local version of the Fairness Doctrine as a cudgel to force their views on-air. The left will certainly be able to force some changes in media choice through the full spectrum of activism (polite conversation and requests to boycotts, protests and violence). But will the left be so enthusiastic when (and I do mean when) the pendulum swings against them in the future? Or if the same standards are enforced against print media sources?

    Air America tried and failed at least twice to enter the broadcast space to carry left wing messaging to the AM dial public. It was nationwide, well funded and boasted a star caliber roster of on-air talent. It had the rights to a slice of the radio spectrum in many markets, but failed. Why? It couldn’t attract an audience sufficient to support an advertising payback for sponsors of the programming.

    In most places when that happens it is interpreted as the community implicitly saying that the message isn’t resonating with the audience. Why that is treated by the left as some form of conspiracy I don’t know. Nobody is stopping Air America from broadcasting – it just needs to find a funding source that supports the messaging in the absence of audience support. Not hard to figure out. But the left immediately says that the conspiracy is undermining its efforts and to “level the playing field” against the rascally corporate media the proper solution is public funding of their messaging – or to allow the left to limit the number of outlets for messaging it doesn’t agree with.

    Look across all electronic media, consumers have the absolute freedom to choose which outlets to listen to – radios and TV and the internet are not limited when taken in totality. Can’t find your preferred perspective on TV, check out radio, not on radio, check out streaming media on the web. If you can’t find it anywhere – including the web – then it is a sign that the audience doesn’t really exist in numbers sizable enough for someone to dedicate their time to serving it. If you believe it does exist then build your own outlet – don’t make it a zero sum game. There is plenty of bandwidth to go around. When you can deliver a big enough constituency, the money will follow to buy access to progressively more influential capabilities (radio and TV, and in bigger markets). But for God’s sake let’s not enter an age when politically motivated activism can usurp another group’s right to consume what it wants to consume. There were plenty of “experiments” in the 20th Century that went down that ppath – and they didn’t end well.

  3. garry walsh says

    Hurray ! Americans are slowly slowly waking up. After 30 + years of dociity folks are starting to realize their country is a third world oligarchy. The solution is in the streets-not in whore washington. Good luck.

    • says

      Thanks, Garry,

      Everybody thinks they can just send off an email and that’s going to change things. But it won’t. Eyeball to eyeball, I think this will.

      Hope you will join the team, we need people who “get” it!


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