Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Fairness Doctrine in Media

One would think that the U.S. media is obligated to provide time and space for both sides in a political debate. One would be wrong. The so-called fairness doctrine was abolished during the Reagan years. This is what The American Voice 2004: A Pocket Guide to Issues and Allegations says about the events that led to the demise of the doctrine:

In 1974 the FCC described the Fairness Doctrine as "…the single most important requirement of operation in the public interest—the sine qua non for grant of a renewable of license".
A decade later, under the leadership of Mark Fowler, a former broadcaster appointed Chairman of the FCC in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, the FCC began to dismantle its "public interest" requirements. It lifted restrictions on the maximum number of commercials TV stations could air and eliminated minimum requirement for time that must be devoted to news and public affairs.
In l985 the FCC declared, "We no longer believe that the Fairness Doctrine, as a matter of policy, serves the public interests…We believe that the interest of the public in viewpoint diversity is fully served by the multiplicity of voices in the marketplace today…"
The FCC did not immediately abrogate the doctrine. It was concerned that the 1959 amendments to the Communications Act might have made the fairness doctrine a statutory requirement, subject to repeal only by Congress. But in 1986 the court held that the fairness doctrine derived from the FCC's mandate to serve the public interest and was not compelled by statute.
In the spring of 1987, reacting to the Court's decision and fearful of its consequences, Congress passed a bill that incorporated the fairness doctrine into the law. It passed with significant bipartisan support, 3 to 1 in the House and nearly 2 to 1 in the Senate. Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms were among the law's supporters. President Reagan vetoed the legislation. There were insufficient votes in Congress to override his veto.
In August of 1987 the FCC dissolved the fairness doctrine. It argued that the doctrine was obsolete, no longer served the public interest and imposed substantial burdens on broadcasters without generating countervailing benefits.
In l989 the House of Representatives again easily passed a law incorporating the fairness doctrine into legislation. When President George Bush threatened a veto the bill died in the Senate.
The impact of the elimination of the fairness doctrine was immediate and significant. In l980 there were 75 talk radio stations in the country. By 1999 there were more than 1300. The conservative Weekly Standard recently summed up the landscape, "… 1300 talk stations, nearly all born since the repeal of the fairness doctrine and nearly all right-leaning…"

We no longer have a fairness doctrine in the media. That's why what happened today is completely acceptable and legal, though nothing can make it decent: George Bush gave "an important presidential speech" that was then televized widely. What he really gave was a campaign speech based on all his stump speeches. Some snippets from the speech:

I want to thank all the state and local officials who are here. I want to thank the candidates who are here. I want to thank the grassroots activists who are here. (Applause.) I want to thank you for what you're going to do, which is to put up the signs, make the phone calls, turn out the vote. With your help, there's no doubt in my mind we'll carry Pennsylvania. (Applause.)
I am sure many of you stayed up to watch the vice presidential debate last night. (Applause.) America saw two very different visions of our country, and two different hairdos. (Laughter.) I didn't pick my Vice President for his hairdo. I picked him for his judgment, his experience -- (applause.) A great Vice President. I'm proud to be running with him. (Applause.)

To keep this economy strong and competitive, we must make sure America is the best place in the world to start a business and to do business. (Applause.) To make sure America is the best place in the world to start a business, our taxes must be low; Congress must make the tax relief we passed permanent. (Applause.) To keep jobs here, there need to be less regulations on our small businesses. (Applause.) To keep jobs here, we must pass an energy plan that makes us less dependent on foreign sources of energy. (Applause.) To make sure jobs exist here in America, we got to do something about these junk and frivolous lawsuits. (Applause.) Trial lawyers shouldn't be getting rich at the expense of our entrepreneurs and our doctors. (Applause.)
My opponent and I have a very different view on how to grow our economy. Let me start with taxes. I have a record of reducing them; he has a record of raising them.
THE PRESIDENT: He voted in the United States Senate to increase taxes 98 times.
THE PRESIDENT: That's a lot. (Laughter.) He voted for higher taxes on Social Security benefits.
THE PRESIDENT: In 1997, he voted for the formula that helped cause the increase in Medicare premiums.
THE PRESIDENT: My opponent was against all of our middle class tax relief. He voted instead to squeeze another $2,000 per year from the average middle class family. Now the Senator is proposing higher taxes on more than 900,000 small business owners. My opponent is one of the few candidates in history to campaign on a pledge to raise taxes. (Laughter.) And that's the kind of promise a politician from Massachusetts usually keeps. (Laughter and applause.)
He says the tax increase is only for the rich. You've heard that kind of rhetoric before. The rich hire lawyers and accountants for a reason -- to stick you with the tab. The Senator is not going to tax you because we're going to win in November. (Applause.)

Nothing wrong with giving campaign speeches during the campaign, of course. What's wrong is that this speech was unscheduled, presented as something different than it was, and given wide publicity without any counterveiling comments from the other side.

Where are John Kerry's ninety seconds for replies? Ask the people who got rid of the fairness doctrine in the media.