THE WISDOM FUND: News & Views
July 25, 1997
The Wisdom Fund

Broadcasting Fairness Doctrine Promised Balanced Coverage

by Enver Masud

WASHINGTON, DC -- The passing of media ownership into fewer hands, the potential for conflicts of interests, and the virtual exclusion of significant opposing viewpoints are good reasons to reevaluate the broadcasting Fairness Doctrine, and it's potential for obtaining more balanced coverage of Islam and Muslims.

The Fairness Doctrine from 1949 until 1987, when it was discontinued by the Federal Communications Commission, required broadcasters, as a condition of getting their licenses from the FCC, to cover controversial issues in their community, and to do so by offering some balancing views. It did not require equal time for opposing views. It merely prevented a station from day after day presenting a single view without airing opposing views.

The fairness doctrine's constitutionality was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1969 case, Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC (395 U.S. 367). The Court ruled that it did not violate a broadcaster's First Amendment rights. Five years later, however, in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo (418 U.S. 241), without ruling the doctrine unconstitutional, the Court concluded that the doctrine "inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate". In 1984, the Court concluded that the scarcity rationale underlying the doctrine was flawed and that the doctrine was limiting the breadth of public debate (FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364).

The Court's decision led to the FCC reevaluation and discontinuance of the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC stated: "We no longer believe that the Fairness Doctrine, as a matter of policy, serves the public interests. In making this determination, we do not question the interest of the listening and viewing public in obtaining access to diverse and antagonistic sources of information. Rather, we conclude that the Fairness Doctrine is no longer a necessary or appropriate means by which to effectuate this interest. We believe that the interest of the public in viewpoint diversity is fully served by the multiplicity of voices in the marketplace today and that the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of the doctrine unnecessarily restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters. Furthermore, we find that the Fairness Doctrine, in operation actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and in degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists."

In 1987 a bill to place the Fairness Doctrine into federal law passed the House by 3 to 1, and the Senate by nearly 2 to 1, but it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. Among those voting for the bill were Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). In 1989 the Fairness Doctrine easily passed the House again, but didn't proceed further as President George Bush threatened to veto it. In 1991, hearings were again held on the doctrine, but President Bush's ongoing veto threat stymied passage.

Then the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was assigned the responsibility to: "facilitate the full development of public telecommunications in which programs of high quality, diversity, creativity, excellence, and innovation, which are obtained from diverse sources, will be made available to public telecommunications entities, with strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." The "Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1993" was sponsored in the Senate (S. 333) by Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), and in the House (H.R. 1985) by Bill Hefner (D-N.C.).

Opponents of the Fairness Doctrine have included New York Governor Mario Cuomo, and broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. Cuomo argued that, "Precisely because radio and TV have become our principal sources of news and information, we should accord broadcasters the utmost freedom in order to insure a truly free press." Limbaugh argued that there should be no government fairness standards on broadcasters, since there are none on the print press.

Others, such as columnist Jeff Cohen, say these arguments miss the key difference: If you set up your competing broadcast station next to a Limbaugh station on the radio dial, without acquiring a government license, you will be prosecuted. Broadcast frequencies are limited, and they belong to all Americans. Furthermore, says Enver Masud, Director of The Wisdom Fund and a strong supporter of free speech, "Freedom of speech has its limits. Even in a theater, one does not have the right to yell 'fire' when there is no fire."

Since these attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, media ownership has passed into fewer and fewer hands. Mark Crispin Miller, professor of Film and Media Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, has written extensively on the media and the increasing concentration of ownership of media companies in the United States. Miller has created charts that trace the holdings of four major conglomerates: Time Warner, Disney/Cap Cities, General Electric, and Westinghouse. Each of these conglomerates owns a news network, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS, respectively. And not only do they own news networks, but also radio stations, magazines, cable TV, motion pictures, music, and newspapers. Furthermore, the (non-media) holdings of these conglomerates create "alarming conflicts of interests" says Miller.

Lastly, diverse opposing voices are virtually excluded from major TV networks. Among these are prominent speakers such as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the prolific writer Noam Chomsky, the militant National Alliance, and Muslims who by the year 2000 will constitute America's second largest religion -- Islam.

More recently the Broadcasting Act of 1996 establishes the Broadcasting Standards Commission. In effect, this merges the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, creating a single forum for public concerns relating to the portrayal of sex and violence and matters of taste and decency in television and radio programmes, as well as unjust and unfair treatment and unwarranted infringement of privacy by broadcasters.

The reasons that led to the demise of the Fairness Doctrine no longer exist. Perhaps it's time to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine.



Avi-Jacob Hyman, "A Draft of a Legal Policy Paper on how to Deal with the Dissemination of Racist and Holocaust-Denial Information via Electronic Media, particularly the Internet," eff.org, March 1995

[The FCC replaced a 30-year-old equal employment opportunity (EEO) program that was struck down as unconstitutional in 1998 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. "Under the new system, the FCC will require broadcasters to have an active outreach program for hiring women and racial minorities. The companies will have to publicize job openings widely to ensure that minorities and women hear about and can compete for the positions."-- John Schwartz, "FCC Unveils New Rules on Hiring," Washington Post, January 21, 2000]

"The Big Ten," The Nation, January 7, 2002

["Two commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission asked for a 'public airing' before the FCC votes on controversial rule changes on media ownership."--"Two FCC commissioners seek to postpone vote on media ownership rules," AFP, May 14, 2003]

Consumers Union Comments in the Federal Communication Commission Proceeding Considering the Newspaper/Broadcast Ownership Rule

Robert W. McChesney, "Making Media Monopoly Part of the Constitution," CounterPunch, May 16, 2003

Frank Ahrens, "FCC Eases Media Ownership Rules: Party-Line Vote Clears Way for More Consolidation," Washington Post, June 3, 2003

[Three anonymous political appointees to the Federal Communications Commission have delivered a body blow to American democracy. . . . a single company could influence the elections of 98 U.S. senators, 382 members of the House, 49 governors, 49 state legislatures and countless local races.

Employing another strategy now allowed by the FCC, that same company could own VHF stations in every TV market in 38 states, with the power to influence elections in 76 U.S. Senate races, 182 House races, 38 gubernatorial races and 38 state legislative races, along with countless local races.--Mortimer B. Zuckerman, "Media-merger ruling imperils democracy," The Daily News, July 2, 2003]

Bill Moyers, "Big Media Gets Bigger," AlterNet, October 10, 2003

"Bill Moyers is Insightful, Erudite, Impassioned, Brilliant and the Host of PBS' 'NOW'," Buzzflash, October 28, 2003

Bill Moyers, "Keynote Address to the National Conference on Media Reform," Common Dreams, November 8, 2003

VIDEO: Media Reform Conference

VIDEO: "Does public service broadcasting have a future?," BBC News, January 15, 2004

Ted Turner "My Beef With Big Media: How government protects big media - and shuts out upstarts like me," Washington Monthly, July/August, 2004

"MEDIA GIANTS," PBS

Timothy Karr, "The Big Media Back Story," MediaChannel.org, August 26, 2004

[Rupert Murdoch predicted that, within three years, there would be just three global media corporations--John Pilger, "Australia 's Samidzat," Green Left Weekly, September 28, 2004]

AUDIO: Bill Moyers, "Keynote Address to the National Conference on Media Reform," May 15, 2005

Seth Sutel, "Redstone: Age of Media Conglomerate Over," Associated Press, July 8, 2005

Paul J. Gough, "Emotional Rather blasts 'new journalism order'," Reuters, September 19, 2005

[The U.S. House of Representatives has handed the supporters of Net neutrality a stinging defeat by passing a bill that gives the phone companies almost everything they lobbied for but remains almost mum on the highly charged issue of Internet tolls.

The controversial Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE), which preserves responsibility for decisions on Net neutrality in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, was passed late Thursday by a vote of 321 to 101.--"US House Passes Telecom Bill," Red Herring, June 9, 2006]

"Who Owns What on Television?," neatorama.com, July 7, 2008

[Conservatives have expressed alarm in recent months over congressional Democratic efforts to restore the so-called Fairness Doctrine which would mandate politically balanced commentary on the airwaves.--"47% Favor Government Mandated Political Balance on Radio, TV," Rasmussen Reports, August 14, 2008]

Michael Calderone, "Sen. Harkin: 'We need the Fairness Doctrine back'," politico.com, February 11, 2009

Ralph Nader, "Public Broadcasting's Cowardly Executives," counterpunch.org, March 15, 2011

VIDEO: Susan P. Crawford, "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age," Yale University Press (December 3, 2012)

back button