The Fairness Doctrine: Bush Remarks in Nashville

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy enforced by the Federal Communications Commission designed to ensure that coverage of controversial issues by broadcast media is fair and balanced. The doctrine is built on the premise that broadcast license holders benefit from publicly owned airwaves and are therefore responsible to serve the public by providing balanced coverage of issues that affect the public interest.

In practice, the doctrine provided access to broadcast media to those who are often not able to get access unless they pay for it. It was designed to assure that all voices are heard. Under current policy groups lacking financial resources don’t get heard unless broadcasters voluntarily provide access. These groups include religious and ethnic minorities, volunteer organizations serving the poor, workers groups and others lacking money and clout.

The Doctrine was repealed in 1987 after a court ruling said it was not mandated by Congress and the FCC didn’t have to enforce it.

In Nashville this week President Bush spoke to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters and referred to Senate Bill 1748, the Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2007, which would prohibit the FCC from reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine. It is sponsored by Republican Congressmen Mike Spence of Indiana and Greg Walden of Oregon. The President alleged Democrats want to block programming by the religious right because they disagree with it and would use the Doctrine to keep them off the air. A charge like this from the President is breath-taking for the leap it makes.

It has been taken up by broadcasters on the religious right and was echoed by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander who said those in favor of the Fairness Doctrine support the “idea that government should dictate what views are aired on radio or television station[s].”

While there is plenty of room for debate about the merits of the Fairness Doctrine–the media choices today are enormously more varied than twenty years ago–the claim by the President and a Senator that it would lead to government dictatorship of content or the banning of right-wing religious views reminds me of a comment by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the17th century, “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”

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