An idea floating around, mostly as a scare tactic on the Democratic
Party left, concerns reviving the Fairness Doctrine. According to this
doctrine, which the FCC applied intermittently after 1949 but then
ceased to apply in the 1980s, those who are licensed to use the airwaves
should be required to “present controversial issues of public
importance in an honest, equitable, and balanced way.”
The idea of the Fairness Doctrine seems fair enough. Voters should
be exposed to both sides of “controversial issues” in order
to make informed electoral decisions, and access to the media is necessarily
limited by those who have the means to make their views known. This
was the view of even a very non-radical Supreme Court Justice, Byron
White, who in a decision rendered in 1959 stressed that a licensee
is not entitled “to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion
of his fellow-citizens.”
This situation has not changed much because of satellite and Internet
communication. Control of the major networks and of national newspapers
brings much better opportunities for influencing than does setting
up a regional satellite in Fargo, North Dakota. A certain argument
for balance would still apply to the national media, although the number
of broadcasting vehicles has grown exponentially during the last 30
years. Not all of these vehicles are of equal value to their users,
any more than all commercial enterprises yield the same profits. It
is, after all, significant that the views I am expressing in this column
would never appear in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.
But applying the Fairness Doctrine unfairly poses dangers. Outrage
from the other side becomes inevitable when Democrats Nancy Pelosi,
John Kerry, and Richard Durbin tell us that they would like Congress
to reapply the Fairness Doctrine, and when they and other members of
their party point accusingly to Rush Limbaugh and other radio personalities.
GOP fundraisers have gone to town soliciting contributions for a crusade
against the Fairness Doctrine. Supposedly, the FCC under Democratic
prodding will force all Republican media personalities to give equal
time to Democrats in order to weaken the GOP.
Although the new president has repeatedly denied that he intends to
pursue this partisan course, FOX, The Wall Street
Journal, The Washington Times, and National
Review have all attacked the Democrats for seeking
to curb political discussion through the reintroduction of the Fairness
There are indeed obstacles to reintroducing this doctrine fairly.
For one thing, it has already become a political football, and it is
hard to see how it could be applied in the future without becoming
even more of what it is now. Second, its application when it was in
force was sometimes quite arbitrary. One of its more questionable applications
brought fame or notoriety to Red Lion, Pennsylvania, in 1964. The case,
which went all the way to the Supreme Court, resulted in a ruinous
decision against the Reverend Billy James Hargis, who ran the Christian
Crusade network. Hargis had made a verbal assault against Democratic
author Fred J. Cook, who had published a vitriolic screed against the “rightwing
extremist” Barry Goldwater.
The court ruled that Hargis had to provide Cook with ample opportunity
to defend his argument, on Hargis’ air space, and this equal
time practice would have to be continued. Although the demand for balanced
treatment was applied against Hargis, nothing like it was imposed on
network television, which savaged Goldwater throughout the 1964 electoral
season. Like antitrust suits, the Fairness Doctrine sounds better in
theory than in practice.
At the same time, there is a crying need for opening the political
discussion to points of view beside those of the Demo-Rep media monopoly.
At this point, for example, it is impossible to tell movement conservative
journalists from the authorized liberal ones. Both have become equally
hysterical in their celebration of Barack Obama and his cabinet appointees.
That is presumably because both groups wish to remain close to centers
of power. The reason is not that GOP Obama-fan David Brooks, who writes
for The New York Times, is quaking in his boots over a re-imposed Fairness
Among the most hypocritical protestors against this doctrine have
been The Wall Street Journal, FOX, and The
Washington Times, all of
which have kept off their editorial pages or out of news programs the
many millions of self-identified conservatives who do not support a
neoconservative foreign policy. The GOP media have slandered and marginalized
people on the right who have tried to be honorable dissenters, and
the treatment of Congressman Ron Paul in the last presidential debate
rarely rose above malicious ridicule.
Why shouldn’t the neocon-controlled Republicans be required
to show the same tolerance of Republican dissenting views as they wish
to have the Democrats show toward them? From personal experience, I
can testify that Pelosi and Kerry are no more hostile to fairness than
those who are sanctimoniously railing against them. The complaints
on both sides are utterly hollow.
The Ornery Observer archives
The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009
by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All
rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster
(Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.
Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities
at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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