Skip to main content
Updated date:

The Fairness Doctrine - Anybody Remember It?

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.


Turns out - we weren't adult enough to be trusted.

As someone who earned a degree in journalism more than thirty-five years ago, I held the concept of the Fairness Doctrine with the same reverence a doctor holds his Hippocratic Oath. If you are going to write for the public airways and column inches, you are obliged to give equal opportunity to both sides of every issue.

I launched this effort on Hub Pages for the purposes of making my fellow hubbers aware of the inexhaustible value of this doctrine and what was lost when it was set aside at the hands of powerful forces in the highest realms of our government. I endeavored to find research, historical records, and documentation in support of my closely held conviction. And in the process, I changed my mind.

The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 as a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requiring broadcast license holders to present controversial issues in a way equitable to both sides of the issue. The Fairness Doctrine is not the same regulation as the Equal Time rule, which only deals with giving political candidates the same amount of time on the public airways – unless they are paying for it. A challenge on First Amendment grounds, Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1969. The Court unanimously upheld the FCC's right to enforce the Fairness Doctrine where channels were limited, but the FCC was not obliged to enforce it. The courts decided the scarcity of the airways in 1969 limited the opportunity for access to the airwaves, and created a need for the Doctrine. And while the airways were owned by the government and merely leased to broadcasters, the FCC had the right to regulate news content and the responsibility to ensure fairness.

In the mid-1980s under the Reagan Administration’s policies of deregulation, the FCC began to repeal parts of the Fairness Doctrine, stating the doctrine hurt the public interest and violated free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In the spring of 1987, both houses of Congress voted to change the doctrine into a law the FCC would have to enforce. But President Reagan, committed to keeping government out of the affairs of business, vetoed the legislation. There were insufficient votes to override the veto. Members of Congress tried again during the administration of Bush II, but again, it met with an un-override-able veto.

In August 1987, the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4-0 vote. They argued the need for it no longer existed because of the many media outlets in the marketplace. There was a voice for each and every side of a controversial issue. The listener had every opportunity to change the channel if he or she didn’t agree with the broadcaster or just wanted to hear another point of view.

So here’s my problem today. Too many people don’t. They not only don’t want to hear another point of view, they want anyone who doesn’t see things the way they do to be silenced, sequestered, or shot. They could not be less interested in having their intelligence challenged or their ideas questioned. And I know how they feel. That’s how I felt about the Fairness Doctrine. I wanted people to be forced to open their minds and be willing to at least hear views other than their own. It was like taking Castor oil. It’s good for you whether you like it or not. In fact, the more you don’t like it, the better it probably is for you.

I felt so strongly the American people needed this safety net for their own good. The radio and television airways today are too ready a bully pulpit for too many people who are diametrically opposed to my position on too many issues. The FCC may have been right about “the proliferation of cable television, multiple channels within cable, public-access channels, and the Internet that have eroded the limited airways argument, since there are plenty of places for ordinary individuals to make public comments on controversial issues at low or no cost.” Exactly my problem. There are too many Bozos out there with a microphone and an audience spouting off opinions I don’t agree with! Where, oh where, is somebody – anybody – saying something on the radio or television or nowadays even the Internet that I want to hear?

Well, James Quello, an FCC chairman in the 1990s may have said it best. "The fairness doctrine doesn't belong in a country that is dedicated to freedom of the press and freedom of speech." When the fairness doctrine was first conceived, only 2,881 radio and 98 television stations existed. By 1960, there were 4,309 radio and 569 television stations. By 1989, these numbers grew to over 10,000 radio stations and close to 1,400 television stations. The number of radios in use jumped from 85.2 million in 1950 to 527.4 million by 1988, and televisions in use went from 4 million to 175.5 million during that period. ("The Fairness Doctrine," National Association of Broadcasters, Backgrounder (1989).)

Turned out, the result of the fairness doctrine in many cases was to stifle the growth of disseminating views and, in effect, make free speech less free. This is exactly what led the FCC to repeal the rule in 1987. FCC officials found that the doctrine "had the net effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, the discussion of controversial topics of public importance," and therefore was in violation of constitutional principles. ("FCC Ends Enforcement of Fairness Doctrine," Federal Communications Commission News, Report No. MM-263, August 4, 1987.) Even the Democratic New York Governor Mario Cuomo has argued that, "Precisely because radio and TV have become our principal sources of news and information, we should accord broadcasters the utmost freedom in order to insure a truly free press." (Mario Cuomo, "The Unfairness Doctrine," The New York Times, September 20, 1993, p. A19.)

A truly free press. I didn’t swear an oath to that effect in order to get my bachelors in journalism, but isn’t that what it really comes down to in its most unbiased form? Come one, come all. Say what you want and let the marketplace decide. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

America, it’s up to you to listen to all sides, many sides, or just one side. It’s your choice. There is no one to make you listen if you don’t want to - any more. The only entity that holds a fairness doctrine today is you.

But I've changed my mind back to my original conviction because of what that change hath wrought.

Since the end of the administration of Bush, the Younger, the cast of characters in the Grand Old Party have been varied and colorful. What they also have been is ridiculous. Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Mitt Romney, now Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and finally Donald Trump.

What has also emerged is conservative talk radio. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Mean. Ugly. Insulting. Telling folks only the facts they like and/or agree with. Giving them no reason to listen to any other point of view.

And now brand television news. Pick the flavor you like and stick with it - not only ignorantly - but proudly. How many people describe themselves as a "faithful viewer of FOX news"? Where has that taken us? To 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017.

People are talking themselves hoarse wondering how the Hell we elected president an eight-year-old who will have to be told what city bus runs up to the hill. (That's where Congress is from the White House.) This. This is how. We're like children whose parents took the training wheels of the bicycle before we were ready. Before we were old enough to be responsible with the freedom we were being given.

The Fairness Doctrine. Turned out we needed it. But we will never get it back.


Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on November 11, 2019:

Apply The Fairness Doctrine to FaceBook? Might solve a lot of problems.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on January 11, 2017:

Remember the good old days? Well, they're gone now.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on August 23, 2016:

Those are aspects the general public (me included) never thought about. I can imagine you did argue those issues. I'd think advertising would be separate from free time, but you never know if the policies weren't clear.

Thanks for adding your experience to this hub!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on August 23, 2016:

Kathleen, I worked in broadcasting under both the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Provision. The latter, I must say scared the pants off all broadcast station owners and managers in those days. For awhile it had a very chilling effect on news and politics because there was little to no clarification from the FCC at that time as to what constituted "fairness" and "equal time." For instance, one question was, "If Joe Blow buys 60 60 second spots for his political run, do I have to GIVE his opponent an hour of equal time?" Some stations actually refused to sell political time because of it. Another question was, "If politician X is in a car wreck and we cover it, do we have to give his opponent equal air time?" That may sound like silly questions, but they really were asked at the time until the FCC made a clarification. I'm too lazy to look that up, but I remember it well.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on August 15, 2016:

pstraubie48: Always welcome those angels and any comments you'd like to add to my work. Blessings back at ya!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on August 15, 2016:

This is definitely something I will need to rehash and consider for my own benefit. Not quite sure I have reached an opinion on the doctrine. I do agree with you in that so many are saying so much that I am diametrically opposed to..and of course in our wonderful country is their right. My problem is that when I (or anyone else ) want to have my thoughts and ideas may be scorned or meet with derision if they differ from the views of those whose opinion differs. How sad and frightening that is.

Well said.

Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 13, 2015:

@ peoplepower73 - I don't mind if you share MY comments; just be aware that the statistics are already quoted by me from another source, and I don't own them for that permission. I figured it would be fine to share in this venue, with credit, but on any more public platform, you'd be well advised to contact that source for permission.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 13, 2015:

Great comments - maybe better than the hub itself! Thanks to each of you for contributing to this discussion. These days you really do have to pan for news and not just entertainment, and too often the news is packaged to suit your particular taste. (I have a hub on that practice also.) Since there is inherent bias in the selection of what gets covered, I prefer broadcasts that invite a variety of people to comment. At least that way you get something close to "equal time" from opposing views (depending on how much of a bully the moderator is.) With more choices, I don't think following the news is easier. I think it is more of a challenge than ever.

Mike Russo from Placentia California on July 13, 2015:

DzyMsLizzy: Thank you and very well said. That pretty much confirms my suspicions.

As an example of critical thinking, I had to do the research and analysis to find out there is a three way civil war in the mid-east. You never hear the media talk about the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds in the same breath. I believe they really don't want the populous to understand that ISIS are the Sunni who are fighting the Shia and the Kurds and the Kurds are sitting on the oil rich land...and we have no business being in the middle of a three-way-civil war.

They use ISIS as a brand name. The Shia are called Rebels and Kurds are the Militia. But as far as their religious beliefs and difference, they are hidden behind these brand names. I believe they really don't want people to use critical thinking.

Do you mind if I share your comments. I think they are profound.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 13, 2015:

I, too, have a journalism background (though I did not go as far as getting a degree) and I agree with you, in principle, but the trouble nowadays is, that there is only an illusion of choice. Consider these statistics I came across the other day:

"There are 1,500 Newspapers, 1,100 Magazines, 9,000 Radio stations, 1,500 TV stations, and 2,400 publishers---ALL OWNED BY:

Just 6 corporations and 272 executives, who control 90% of what 277 million Americans see, hear, and read."

(Quoted from The Mint Press News--which describes itself thus: "Independent watchdog journalism exposing the detrimental effects of American imperialism, corporatocracy & the fading away of our civil liberties.")

It therefore behooves everyone to seek out and find the facts behind the news stories. The problem being, that our schools are no longer teaching critical thinking and fact-finding skills, but only how to parrot back rote answers to standardized tests. It has made people too lazy to search for information, even as easy as this has become with the advent of the Internet. It is so much easier to just sit back, watch, and believe whatever is spewed forth by the TV news anchor puppets. If this does not change, it will be the downfall of this nation.

So, more than it was needed in the past, I think it is time for a return of the "Fairness Doctrine," for there is nothing fair or unbiased in today's "news," given that for all practical purposes, it all comes from the same source.

It is a shame when we must go to outside sources as diverse as the BBC or Al Jazeera America to find the real scoop on what is happening in our own country.

Voted up, useful and interesting.

Mike Russo from Placentia California on July 13, 2015:

I read all the comments so far and I feel a little differently about it. I do remember the fairness doctrine and I do remember when Reagan overturned it. I also remember newscasts like the Huntly Brinkly Report where there was point and counterpoint segments that were very informative from both sides. Have you ever noticed that today they are called shows or some other name, but they are not called news. There is the Shaun Hannity Show, the O'Reily Factor, Rachel Maddow show, Chris Matthew Hardball, to name a few. The parent of all of these includes Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

I remember Walter Cronkite. He actually presented the news. He sat behind a desk where the set was very austere. Today we have bimbos who don't even have a journalism background interviewing people who are presented as experts that are really not experts. They are there just to kill air time while breaking news is unfolding, which might take days. These are not newscasts. They are infotainment of which the real purpose is to have you hang in long enough for the commercials.

At the same time they are presenting their infotainment, a craw strip is being displayed that actually presents the news. It's almost subliminal I'm sure most people don't even watch it, because they are looking at the attractive ladies with short skirts sitting in couches and the handsome men along side of them.

For the radio shows, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have prostituted themselves to tear down liberals, the democratic party, and Obama. Now ISIS is using segments from those shows as recruitment propaganda.

I do change the channels and the radio stations. I watch Scott Pelley who has a 30 minute segment on CBS and I listen to KMPC which is affiliated with CBS new, both are unadulterated, unbiased newscasts.

So the question is have the news presentations devolved to the point where a Walter Cronkite type show, be boring and not survive, because we don't really want just the news, we want people to form opinions for us by presenting infotainment?

As always, you are great writer and I really enjoy reading your material. Voting up, interesting, useful and sharing.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on August 26, 2012:

Thanks Mitch! Well said. I appreciate your contribution to this topic.

Mitch Alan from South Jersey on August 25, 2012:

I've always been against the "fairness" doctrine. Let the market dictate what is aired. If people want to listen, they will. If they don't listen, it won't remain on the air. No subsidies either. Sink or swim on merit and the economy of a willing audience. If a certain point of view is presented well and meets with a market place that finds it desireable, then it survives. Good Hub...keep Hubbing.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 21, 2012:

Thanks Michelle. That you hadn't heard of it is interesting, but is going to become more and more common. Might be a good thing. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Taylor from New Jersey on June 20, 2012:

Interesting topic, I had never even heard of The Fairness Doctrine. It is unfortunate that most people are too close minded to even listen to a differing point of view from their own let alone seek it out.

Great hub, voted up and shared :-)

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on March 09, 2012:

Thanks for considering this hub to the extent to make comments. Greatly appreciated.

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on March 08, 2012:

I agree with your conclusion that it should not be the government who is determining what is fair or unfair in news coverage. Governments that do have this kind of control frequently spew out propaganda to the masses in the guise of news.

It is up to each individual writer and speaker to determine how many sides of an issue s/he wishes to put forth; readership and/or listeners will let that writer know through feedback and audience if you've made the appropriate choices in the long run.

Voted up and SHARED.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on February 22, 2012:

It didn't go where I thought it would either when I started writing it. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on February 21, 2012:

Excellent. Didn't go where I expected, but ti was good to think in a different way. Great Hub. SHARING

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on February 07, 2012:

I was looking forward to some lively discussion on this hub topic. Y'all have not disappointed! Thanks for the read and taking the time to put your well-thought-out comments on the page.

grayghost on February 07, 2012:

Absolutely right on the mark, and very well stated. The prospect of having Government arbiters of "fairness" is really quite frightening. I'm sorry to be one of those of the mindset that Government does very little "very well", and given ample time and money, can wreak havoc with almost anything. Giving Politicians and Bureaucrats that much control, particularly over a right our Constitution specifically and clearly reserves for the people, not the Government, is a forfeiture of one of our most precious freedoms.

One could go on endlessly about the risks, like rules written by people you view as good guys being inherited, reinterpreted, and enforced later by the bad guys; who would the "deciders of fairness" be? Back to the same good guy-bad guy risk; and as always, Government will certainly overreach-deciding "fairness" would expand to include "forbidden speech", "subversive speech" and all kinds of other mischievous behavior. This one is clearly best left to the free and open marketplace of ideas. As billybuc so aptly stated above, if you don't like what you hear, free to "push the button" and go elsewhere. And the great thing is, the person on the other end is still in possession of their rights as well.

Kathleen Cochran (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on February 06, 2012:

billybuc and gregas: Welcome and thanks for your points of view: I'm willing to hear you!

Greg Schweizer from Corona, California. on February 06, 2012:

Hi Kathleen, I run into people like that all of the time. I am always willing to hear every side of any issue before setting mine in concrete, and then my opinion's concrete just may crumble. That's one of the problems with our politicians today, if someone doesn't see it their way, they will sit and pout, or maybe even cry, until the other person/people see it their way. Just like the situation last year with the Social Security situation. "We aren't going to do anything until you see it our way", that was pretty much acting like the children they are. I voiced my opinion, does anyone see it my way? Greg

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 06, 2012:

That is a beautiful hub and you are right on! I recently erased fifty-two "friends" from Facebook because of their insane political rantings AND their unwillingness to listen to anyone who dared disagree with them. I don't mind disagreement but I don't want to be labeled as un-American when I do disagree. Nice job!

Related Articles