A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Fairness Doctrine


Q: Is the fairness doctrine coming back, and would it shut down conservative talk radio?

A: Obama has made it clear he opposes it. If it were revived, it probably would reduce the overall number of radio hours devoted to conservative talk shows.

FULL QUESTION

I hear Rush [Limbaugh] and others talk about the Fairness Doctrine. Is what they are saying just scare tactics or does their argument have legs? Basically they are saying that the Fairness Doctrine will require equal time for both right and left points of view and will possibly shut down conservative talk radio.

FULL ANSWER

For all the heated discussion of the fairness doctrine, it’s worth noting that there was never an official document laying it out. Its general principles developed beginning in the 1930s and 1940s; it was more or less described by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, and it continued evolving through FCC actions and court decisions. In essence, the fairness doctrine required radio and television broadcast licensees to cover important and controversial issues of interest in the community, and to provide opportunity for all sides to be heard.

In a 1985 report, however, the FCC, led by President Reagan appointee Mark Fowler, concluded that the fairness doctrine was doing more harm than good: It caused stations to be unwilling to air reports that included controversial viewpoints; it put the government in the dubious position of evaluating content; and it was no longer needed since the number of broadcast outlets had grown considerably, the report said. The FCC also expressed concern about the doctrine’s constitutional soundness. Many were convinced that the First Amendment rights of broadcasters were being hindered. Two years later, the FCC finally rejected the doctrine in a decision involving pro-nuclear power ads that ran on a Syracuse TV station. The agency’s action was upheld by a federal appellate court.

Periodic attempts to bring back the fairness doctrine have been unsuccessful. Recently, several prominent Democrats have expressed interest in bringing it back, including Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton, who said on a radio show last month that either the fairness doctrine should be reimposed or "you ought to have more balance on the other side."

Also last month, Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow told liberal talk show host Bill Press that something like the fairness doctrine should be put on the agenda in Washington:

Stabenow: I think it’s absolutely time to pass a standard. Now, whether it’s called the Fairness Standard, whether it’s called something else — I absolutely think it’s time to be bringing accountability to the airwaves.

Stabenow (who is married to Tom Athans, a liberal talk show executive) said at the time that she was thinking of having hearings on the issue, but has since said that she has no plans to do so.

President Barack Obama, however, isn’t lining up with Durbin, Pelosi, et al on this matter. Last June, the press secretary for his Senate office told a reporter for Broadcasting & Cable in an e-mail that Obama "does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters." The aide, Michael Ortiz, also wrote:

Ortiz: [Obama] considers this debate to be a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible. That is why Sen. Obama supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.

All of the other issues mentioned by Ortiz are controversial in their own right, but none of them are functional equivalents of the fairness doctrine from days of yore.

And last month, an Obama spokesman told FoxNews.com that the president wasn’t interested in reviving the fairness doctrine. "As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," spokesman Ben LaBolt told the Web site.

Out of an abundance of caution, perhaps, the Senate on Feb. 26 approved a Republican amendment to the D.C. voting rights bill that would prevent the FCC from reinstating the fairness doctrine; the vote was 83-11. A second, Democratic-sponsored amendment, which passed 57-41, requires the FCC to promote diversity in media ownership and to ensure that broadcasters operate "in the public interest," though it’s unclear what that means. However, neither amendment is attached to the House version of the voting rights bill, and it remains to be seen if either of them will emerge from House-Senate negotiations over the measure’s final language.

As for whether the revival of the fairness doctrine would put the brakes on conservative talk radio: It well could reduce the airtime of such shows. Stations probably would have to balance their conservative shows with ones that were more liberal-leaning. By and large, liberal talk radio has not been commercially successful. Any unwillingness by advertisers to buy slots during liberal programming would cut into stations’ earnings and might prompt them to skin back their conservative shows so they wouldn’t have to air the low-revenue liberal counterparts.

But given Obama’s position and the margin by which the Republican amendment cleared the Senate Feb. 26, we have strong doubts this will come to pass in the near future.

Update, March 16: Our story originally stated flatly that liberal talk radio hadn’t been commercially successful. But reader Donna L. Halper, a media historian who teaches at Lesley University and has written a book on talk radio, wrote us to say that at least two shows, those of Stephanie Miller and Ed Schultz, were in fact profitable. We weren’t able to document that, but we have changed the story’s wording to reflect the fact that we were speaking generally; Miller’s, Schultz’s and other individual shows may indeed be financial successes. 

– Viveca Novak

Sources

Federal Communications Commission, Report of the Commission in the Matter of Editorializing by Licensees, Docket No. 8516, 1949.

Syracuse Peace Council v. FCC, 867 F.2d 654 (D.C. Cir. 1989).

Bolton, Alexander. "GOP Preps for Talk Radio Confrontation."

Gizzi, John. "Pelosi Supports Fairness Doctrine," HumanEvents.com, 25 June 2008.

Eggerton, John. "Bill Clinton Talks of Re-Imposing Fairness Doctrine or At Least ‘More Balance’ in Media," Broadcasting & Cable, 13 Feb. 2009.

Eggerton, John. "Obama Does Not Support Return of Fairness Doctrine." Broadcasting & Cable, 25 June 2008.

Jensen, Elizabeth and Lia Miller. "After Bankruptcy Filing, Recriminations Fly at Air America," The New York Times, 18 Dec. 2006.