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 BradBlog.com, 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.