A Hale and Hearty Farewell to the Fairness Doctrine

By executive order, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski this week struck the Fairness Doctrine from the broadcast regulations. Although the FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration, the move will happily end the occasional calls from the Left to reinstate its enforcement.

As readers old enough to remember the broadcasting landscape before 1980 know, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present all points of view on a political topic. That meant a broadcaster that presented an editorial on, say, cutting local property taxes, was obliged to provide airtime to an individual or organization with an opposing view. The extent to which a TV or radio station complied with the doctrine was a factor when it came time for license renewal.

The regulation, however, amounted to an exercise in the law of unintended consequences. The “good intention” behind the Fairness Doctrine was to ensure the public had an opportunity to hear all arguments in a relevant policy debate. But since most public affairs issues can accommodate more than two clear points of view, every time a broadcaster aired an opinion it risked having to accommodate, via air time, perhaps a dozen or more alternative viewpoints. The result is that broadcasters deliberately shied away from any programming that stoked debate. The airwaves, rather than contribute the robust marketplace of ideas that media idealists imagined, became largely a wasteland for public discourse.

That, of course, changed in the 1980s with the advent of talk radio, which today overwhelmingly leans toward conservative viewpoints, and hence, despite the fact it may have saved AM radio (which has been, ironically, another pet cause of the media Left), has become the bane of liberals everywhere. (As an aside, I agree with those who say liberal talk radio would have stood a better chance had it not had to compete with government-subsidized NPR and its member stations.)

The Fairness Doctrine was born out of the idea that because in most markets TV and radio stations were relatively few, we needed some sort of government-applied mechanism that compelled diversity of viewpoint was necessary lest a broadcaster attempt to foist one view on the populace.

It’s gratifying to see even a progressive-leaning chairman such as Genachowski acknowledge that the media has become so fragmented that it’s easy to find just about anyone’s take on anything. The public, moreover, can discern the difference. Fox News and MSNBC each have their fans and detractors. And although theses cable networks may contribute to the overexcited state of discourse of modern times, by themselves they probably fuel much more discussion and debate about public affairs than the media a a whole did when the Fairness Doctrine was the order of the day.