Past and present: Why the Fairness Doctrine should be put in place once more
“England has the same kind of rules and in Europe, but in our country, we lost those rules and, as a result, we know a lot about Britney Spears’ gradual emotional decline and we know a lot about Charlie Sheen, but we don’t know much about global warming or the fact that the Appalachian Mountains essentially no longer exist.” – Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
By Aaron Williams–
The Fairness Doctrine, when it was first established in 1927 by the Radio Act of the same year, was an effort by Congress to hold the FCC and its predecessors accountable for the information they disseminated over public airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote a fraction of their broadcast material to matters of public importance. During this informative segment, broadcasters were to be sure to include all opposing viewpoints that encompassed the full spectrum of the particular issue being discussed. The Fairness Doctrine was a well-intentioned effort to make sure that the American people stayed informed on issues of public importance that affected their lives during their interactions with radio and television media. As our founding fathers and the Congress of 1927 knew, a democracy like our own can only work if we maintain an educated and informed populace.
Now press fast forward. The year is 1987. Right-wing champion and then current president Ronald Reagan vetoes the Fairness in Broadcasting Act, Congress’ attempt to codify the Fairness Doctrine following the FCC’s 4-0 decision to strike it down, after a decade long battle over the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine. It bears mentioning that FCC Chairman Mark Fowler spearheaded the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1985. Fowler had conveniently served as an advisor on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign staff. Fowler, a proponent of deregulation of television and radio stations, claimed that the Fairness Doctrine was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment and also hurt public interest.
Reagan’s veto of the Fairness in Broadcasting Act was an isolated episode in a maelstrom of deregulation that is attributed to his presidency, but it has had a lasting impact on our society. Reagan opened the flood gates of hyper-commercialism and the once sturdy barrier between entertainment and news media has become increasingly and alarmingly eroded. We live in an age where the message can be drowned out by the medium. Advertising seamlessly merges with editorial and news content. Media conglomerates are free to push one side of an issue with no regard to what is being said across the aisle. In fact, the name of the game now is to mesmerize the masses into accepting only a particular news organization or corporation’s word as truth and filling the airwaves with ad-hominem attacks on those who do not share the same opinion.
It should come as no surprise that with the collapse of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a wall Ronald Reagan actually did tear down, came the rise of right-wing talk radio and conservative demagogue Rush Limbaugh. Finally, the chance that Fowler and Reagan had been looking for! Now radio and television stations were free to broadcast whatever facts and information they’d like without offering a single dissenting opinion or viewpoint. Just slap on the term, “editorial content” and media outlets had the green light to put whatever college dropout music DJ they could find on the airwaves and allow them to share their enlightened ideas with the nation. And for some Americans, this is the only news they will get all day.
In my hometown, a single radio broadcasting company that owns numerous local stations has a “news” station that runs Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham’s talk shows back to back for ten hours as their news content. Limbaugh’s often sexist, racist and hate-filled speech is never countered by a dissenting opinion, save for the one caller Rush allows per broadcast to contradict him and then only so “El Rushbo” can personally insult the caller and prevent them from making their point.
This is the state of our media. Among news media consumers, those who only watch Fox News continue to be the most misinformed on the important issues in America today. A revision of the original Fairleigh Dickinson University study that originally discovered this finding was reaffirmed just this past May. Ask yourself if before 1987 a news organization would be able to baselessly call the President of the United States an illegal Kenyan immigrant. Or a radical, socialist Muslim. The answer is no. Outside of the Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News alternate universe, no reputable news organization is reporting such claims. Perhaps this is why that Danville, Kentucky woman standing outside of the vice presidential debate could not give Chris Matthews her definition of what a communist was while she stubbornly disgraced our state with her ignorance.
If Congress cannot hold the television and radio stations accountable for the information they distribute to millions of Americans daily, then we as individuals must become smarter media consumers. We must challenge our opinions daily and be ready to integrate new information into our worldview. We must seek out opinions on both sides of the aisle and fully understand the issues. Our democracy desperately needs an informed electorate in this coming election. Not a bunch of mesmerized couch potatoes flipping between “The Five” and “Honey Boo Boo.”