The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine was a broadcast regulation that in its simplest form imposed upon broadcasters the responsibility to provide their audiences with a forum for all sides in a public issue that received attention on their airtime. If a so-called liberal spoke on an issue in a public service program, for example, a countervailing viewpoint from the conservative side had to be given equal time.

in the
were the
voices of
women …
people of
color and
not only
but even
–Susan J. Douglass

This doctrine arises from the principle of ownership of the airwaves by the public. In Fairness Now, Susan J. Douglass offers an overview of the Fairness Doctrine, noting that it was not a panacea, but it was better than the present broadcast environment in which dissenting voices and those of women, minorities and others with limited access to media barely get a hearing.

The broadcast spectrum is not owned by individual licensees who use the airwaves for profit. The airwaves are held in public trust, administered by the government. The government is the protector of the people’s rights.

In 1987 amidst great fanfare this simple idea was attacked, mainly by corporate owners of broadcast licenses, and the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. This occurred as deregulation swept through the nation. Today, it’s hardly recognized that this principle of fairness was written into policy to encourage and protect free speech in the public airwaves. It supported the principle that broadcasters operate in the public interest and they must be held accountable to provide for the public dialogue as a condition of being granted the ability to profit from the publicly held commodity, the spectrum they are allowed to use to transmit messages. It remains as a vestige of broadcast licensing and most people are oblivious to the principle of fairness in broadcasting.

Writing in In These Times, Jessica Clarke and Tracey Van Slyke present an historical summary of this battle for fairness and suggest how a wider range of viewpoints could be injected into the public discourse. Writing as progressives, they advocate for the inclusion of progressive voices.

Whether you agree with their politics or not, the point they make about creating a media environment that is more inclusive and diverse is a good thing to consider. Critics from nearly every point of view are concerned about the quality of the public discourse and of news coverage today. That concern alone should motivate consideration of a more inclusive and civil discourse on the the issues that shape our lives together as a society.

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