Did revoking the FCC Fairness Doctrine give rise to 'fake news'?

Kristine Glenn - Jan 27, 2021 1:56:57 PM

Since I am in Cincinnati, home to the popular FC Cincinnati Major League Soccer club, let me start by saying this post has nothing to do with soccer. The FCC I refer to is the US Federal Communications Commission, and the Fairness Doctrine was a policy from 1949.

I had not heard of the FCC Fairness Doctrine when I began this post. (Sorry, Xavier profs. It didn't stick.) Before I give you the data dump on the doctrine, I want to share the backstory on why I wrote this blog.

Two friends and I were talking about the media and how misinformation circulates. My friend mentioned that our church pastor said something in his recent sermon to the effect that it was the removal of the Fairness Doctrine in 2011 that fueled the rise of fake news because networks no longer had to present both sides of an issue. (I'm paraphrasing what I recall her saying to me, and she was paraphrasing what she recalled our pastor said in church.)

I told her I had never heard of the Fairness Doctrine. My other friend commented that if our pastor said it, it must be true. I was curious. A quick Google search that night and there it was on Wikipedia – the FCC Fairness Doctrine was eliminated in 1987 and removed from the Federal Register in August 2011.

I decided to write about it. Why would we revoke such a commonsense policy? Could we fix this 'fake news' mess by bringing it back?

I waded into the story. I learned that a fairness doctrine brings up real concerns about freedoms of speech, freedoms of the press, and government abuse of power. I also learned that lack of a fairness doctrine leads to legitimate concerns about the rich manipulating crucial platforms simply because they can afford to control them.

Hours of time and research (at least 20 hours put into this) to learn that I don't know nearly enough. Possibly our pastor didn't either? In fairness, I never heard his comments first hand.

The reasons for misinformation are vast; assigning blame is a fool's errand.

What was the FCC Fairness Doctrine?

The Fairness Doctrine, written in 1949, required radio and television broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on public issues fairly and honestly.

The prevailing idea was that the highest and best use of the broadcast spectrum – a limited resource - was to inform the public, which meant broadcast license holders should present all sides of controversial issues fairly and equally. (Note: the Fairness Doctrine never applied to print journalists. They did not have to obtain a federal license to publish.)

If you visit FCC's radio history documents, you can read the FCC's June 8, 1949 report, Editorializing by Licensees. It's an interesting albeit challenging (I could use a law degree) document about hearings held in Washington D.C. to determine if the FCC had the right to implement a Fairness Doctrine. Their conclusion:

"It is this right of the public to be informed, rather than any right on the part of the Government, any broadcast licensee or any individual member of the public, to broadcast his own particular views on any matter, which is the foundation stone of the American system of broadcasting."

Not everyone agreed with the FCC even then. What about freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution? The Fairness Doctrine was legally challenged and heard before the Supreme Court in 1969.

In Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, the court upheld the FCC Fairness Doctrine. It determined that since the doctrine was trying to protect viewers' and listeners' rights and create a more informed public, it did not violate the Constitution's First Amendment.

Why was the fairness doctrine revoked?

Fast forward to the 1980s. Broadcasters want the same freedoms of the press as print publishers. And with the advent of cable and satellite, scarcity of information is no longer the issue it was 40 years ago.

The FCC holds more hearings to determine if enforcing the Fairness Doctrine is constitutional. This time it arrives at a unanimous and markedly different conclusion.

"In sum, the fairness doctrine in operation disserves both the public's right to diverse sources of information and the broadcaster's interest in free expression. Its chilling effect thwarts its intended purpose, and it results in excessive and unnecessary government intervention into the editorial processes of broadcast journalists."

A New York Times TV View article from 1985 by journalist and author John Corry notes that a significant part of the FCC's argument for revoking the Fairness Doctrine is the abundance of information available to the public. In 1949 there were 2,564 radio stations and 51 television stations. In 1985, there are 9,766 radio stations, 1,208 television stations, and 6,600 cable television systems – plus other forms of electronic communications.

Congress balks

While the FCC unanimously votes to revoke the Fairness Doctrine, Congress disagrees with the decision.

In June 1987, Congress tries to pre-empt the FCC decision by turning the Fairness Doctrine into federal law. According to an LA Times article, the legislation passes in both the House (302-102) and the Senate (59-31). Still, President Ronald Reagan vetoes it, stating, "This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment."

There have been several attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine or some version of it since 1987. No legislation has had enough bipartisan support to pass.

Is the Fairness Doctrine a Republican vs. Democrat issue? I ran across several stories on the internet that imply that – Republicans wanted the doctrine removed to pave the way for conservative talk radio and Fox News. Democrats wanted the doctrine enforced to shut these same organizations down.

But according to a Time magazine article from 2011, The Death of the Fairness Doctrine, many viewed the obsolete rule and ongoing debate as a poor use of Congress's time, including President Obama.

Factcheck.org cites an email sent from the press secretary of Obama's senate office saying in an email that "[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."

As recently as September 19, 2019, the House introduced legislation about the fairness doctrine – H.R. 4401 – 116th Congress: Restore the Fairness Doctrine Act of 2019. It died in Congress.

Was the fairness doctrine's removal responsible for the rise of misinformation in the media?

In stories written about the fairness doctrine by USA Today and Snopes, both organizations seem to conclude the answer is no. The reason comes down to the definition of a broadcaster.

According to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, the fairness doctrine did not apply to cable, satellite, or internet providers because they are all services we pay for.

Additionally, it doesn't sound like the FCC enforced the doctrine all that much anyhow, as New York Times journalist Corry notes in his 1985 story.

"The Fairness doctrine always has been more symbolic than real, more a standard to be strived for than an absolute command. The FCC has not been punitive or capricious in enforcing it."

But Corry went on to say that it was his opinion that the fairness doctrine was essential to democracy, and eliminating it would be a mistake. His words from 36 years ago strike a chord today.

"Think about it. How about a station devoted solely to anti-Semitic gospel hours, say, or the glories of Weathermen extremists? Neither prospect is that far-fetched. Cruise the airwaves of America. In different parts of the country, at odd hours of the day or night, you may hear programs very much like that now. There is no compelling reason why they should be encouraged. The Fairness Doctrine may be only a standard, and it may not often be enforced. But it does recognize that while speech may be free, it may not always be unbridled. Enlightened public discourse demands a sense of boundaries. Mere possession of a radio or television station does not mean the owner has a sense of boundaries; it means only that he has sufficient money to buy the station."

I know I have only scratched the surface of this issue, so please feel free to comment. I am not an expert, merely curious. I don't want the government controlling the information I receive. But how are those who spread falsehoods held accountable? 

If you are interested in learning more about how you can spot fake news or other media policy issues, other resources to check out might include:

The News Literacy Project 

First Draft

All Sides

Free Press


Topics: Just because

Kristine Glenn

Kristine Glenn

I have an appetite for getting things done. As an advertising and corporate communications leader, I am experienced in bringing people, as well as animals, together. I have led cross-departmental teams and developed trusted relationships with C-Suite executives. I have 20 years of public relations and marketing communications experience, including providing traditional, digital and social media services to billion-dollar brands. I don’t believe in lengthy processes or convoluted platforms. I believe in hard work, empathy and love.

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