Once More, With Feeling: The Fairness Doctrine Is Not Fair, Nor Is It Needed

from the please-make-it-go-away dept

A year and a half ago, there was this sudden burst of attention from some suggesting that the long-discredited and discarded concept of the “fairness doctrine” needed to be brought back. The fairness doctrine is basically a requirement that whenever a TV station covers a controversial topic, it’s required, by law, to give equal time to a “response.” This, some people think, makes the coverage “fair.” It does not. All it does is presume that there are two, and only two, sides to any issue — and that people are too stupid to figure out that some stuff you see on TV may not tell you the whole story.

Usually, it’s pushed by some group that feels “its side” isn’t getting enough attention. Of course, rather than realize that maybe they’re not doing a very good job packaging up that message to make it understandable or interesting (or, maybe, that they’re just wrong), they feel the need to demand time on TV for a response. Yet, these days, when anyone can “broadcast” any content they want, there’s even less of a need for a fairness doctrine on TV. It’s a restriction on speech, by determining what a TV show needs to include in a report. That’s not fair at all.

Thus, we were pretty surprised some in Congress actually decided to push for a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine last year. Thankfully, the effort went nowhere, helped in part by the FCC pointing out that, these days, there’s just no need for a return of the Fairness Doctrine. No side has any trouble getting its word out. There’s no shortage of outlets to do so. If your message isn’t getting out there, it’s certainly not for a lack of available channels.

And yet… here they come again. Reports are spreading that Rep. Nancy Pelosi is pushing to bring back the Fairness Doctrine once again. And, even worse, others seem to be trying to beyond even the Fairness Doctrine, with a variety of ideas that all seem to involve having the government own or regulate content. It’s stunning, in this day and age, with all the outlets out there for someone to get out their message that they would feel they need to turn to the government to force their message on others.

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Comments on “Once More, With Feeling: The Fairness Doctrine Is Not Fair, Nor Is It Needed”

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Doug says:

Re: Well...

Too stupid or not enough time to research who is talking about which side of an issue, tune in to that and watch that too? Face it, whoever manages to grab your attention has the advantage of being the only side presented. Even if you understand that not everything on TV is true, where do you now go to find the truth, and who’s got the time to wade through the reams of “information” on the internet?

Machine (profile) says:

Two things:

(1) The new leader of the Democratic party, and possibly our next President, Barack Obama, yesterday announced that he does not support the return of the fairness doctrine: http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6573406.html

(2) In addition to the key points you make, it should also be noted that the Fairness Doctrine simply prevented most broadcasters from ever discussing a controversial subject on the airwaves. Rather than deal with the hassle of finding an “opposing viewpoint,” which, as you note, requires a ridiculously simple view of how the world works, most broadcasters just avoided the subjects altogether. It didn’t balance the debate. It killed it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As a registered Republican, I have to say the more I learn about Obama, the more I like.

From the Broadcasting Cable Article:

“…Sen. Obama [also] supports media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets.”


dc (profile) says:

Re: Re:

ignoring (1), except to point out that Obama seems to be in support of the latest attempt to eviscerate the Fourth Amendment via another FISA update. Serious brakes on my enthusiasm for him to be president.

with regards to (2), however, I’d just say that it could have hardly been worse back then than it is now. How much coverage is there of the war, except when spending resolutions come up? Not non-existent, true, but not a lot.

How about coverage of the WH propaganda campaign to drum up support for the war several years ago? (Paying retired generals to go on news programs and spout stuff supportive of the war.)

How about coverage of that FISA bill I alluded to earlier (yes, I’m aware of Olbermann’s special comment on it, and greatly disappointed by it)?

Going back a bit further, how about coverage of how the aluminum tubes that were the slam-dunk evidence of Sadam having nuclear weapons being called inconclusive by nuclear weapons experts within the administration?

Going back similarly far, why didn’t we hear that the State Department’s intelligence apparatus didn’t agree with most of Colin Powell’s UN speech until years later?

How about coverage of the specifics of billions of dollars wasted (literally, thrown away) in Iraq through improper administration or outright graft?

How about how contractors in Iraq are, literally, electrocuting soldiers as they take showers?

How about how people are fired for trying to get contractors over there to actually justify their invoices (a billion dollars worth, that we know of)?

Going back further again, how about coverage of Sadam’s ties, or lack thereof, to al-Qaida?

While I agree that it would be great to not need the fairness doctrine, and we probably won’t within the next ten years, I strongly disagree that it would not be useful now. And the reason for that is simple: too much of the population gets all their news from broadcast media, and that’s just a number of cases off the top of my head where the broadcast media has fallen on its collective ass in coverage, to the great detriment of the entire country.

Mark Murphy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

But you miss the point of the doctrine – it’s to reduce the ability to skew public opinion by bombarding the them with only one view of an topic. I would have hoped it was obvious even to techdirt that public opinion can be easily skewed by such a thing.

That implies, though, that it is the government’s job to dictate under what circumstances a given topic is “skewed” and needs countervailing opinions. Organizations with armies should not be in the business of telling people what they should and should not think.

What’s really strange is why the Democrats would be interested in this. After all, their argument on topics from global warming to intelligent design is that the truth is so skewed in one direction that providing equal time to an alternative opinion is intrinsically overstating that opinion’s effective weight.

If we want “bombarding…with only one view of [a] topic” to be defeated, we need to ensure the populace recognizes a snow job when they see one and seeks out evidence and facts on their own. This, of course, takes time and effort, which nobody wants to bother with.

Beefcake says:

Re: Re: Re:

This response does not account for the fact that this was a rule of broadcast media which use public-owned radio frequencies as the broadcast medium. To ensure that an exclusive leaseholder of a public frequency utilizes that frequency in the public interest, the fairness doctrine should be used.

It should not apply to non-broadcast media such as newspapers, Internet, etc because they do not distribute content via exclusive use of public property.

Cable-only television channels are less clear to me– while the signal is delivered from the head-end to your home via a cable (not airwaves), they do utilize airwaves to uplink to satellites for distribution to cable head-ends.

Mark Murphy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

To ensure that an exclusive leaseholder of a public frequency utilizes that frequency in the public interest, the fairness doctrine should be used.

Except that the fairness doctrine is impossible to implement fairly, which is the point Mike was bringing up originally.

Let’s take intelligent design in the classroom as an example. The classic “fairness doctrine” would ensure that, should there be significant discussion of intelligent design as part of the science curriculum, that there must be time set aside for somebody who disagrees with intelligent design in the science curriculum. The problem is, there’s an array of different disagreements on intelligent design in the classroom: “it’s not science” (secularism), “OK, but then you have to teach my beliefs too” (Pastafarianism), and so on. Either the fairness doctrine has to choose the two “sides” of the issue, or the fairness doctrine has to give equal time to every side, no matter how marginal.

If the goal is “make sure that the public resource is used in the public’s interest”, there’s a whole lotta things that could be done, such as getting rid of reality TV, which has dubious public interest value. The classic “fairness doctrine”, though, just isn’t practical. I think I understand your goal; I encourage you to find another means to that goal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You’re kind of all over the place here, but I think we’re on the same page. But allow me to crystalize the process a bit.

Classrooms are not subject to the Fairness Doctrine, so they do not apply. There is an entirely different set of standards and rules for public academic accreditation, and the two do not compare.

I did not make the statement “make sure that the public resource is used in the public’s interest”. This is an inaccurate paraphrase that ignores the “exclusive” factor (i.e. a particular frequency in particular broadcast area is only licensed and used by one broadcaster.) This is why the Fairness Doctrine doesn’t apply to newspapers delivered via a public road– anyone can use the that road to deliver a newspaper, but only the leaseholder in an area is allowed to broadcast on a certain frequency.

About reality television, the frequency leaseholder is not required to use the frequency SOLELY for serving the public, but are required to dedicate SOME of that time (I frankly don’t know the number, but it isn’t very much.) Often this takes the form of local news, participation in the Emergency Broadcast System, PSAs in lieu of a paid spot here and there, etc. As long as they meet whatever that fraction of weekly airtime is required, they can broadcast “Marry My Dungeon Master” or whatever else is commercially feasible for the remainder.

But the overall commitment to the public-service requirement isn’t in question in Mike’s posts on this topic (at least as I’ve understood them), but a specific sub-rule of that requirement (The Fairness Doctrine.) I do agree that the old set of definitions and rules of the Fairness Doctrine would probably be woefully out of date today. And I absolutely believe that it should only apply to broadcast media– if they try to lump print and Internet and etc into it, I’m just as against that part as anyone else.

But I don’t agree that we should chuck the whole concept just because there are other private and non-exclusive avenues for information. Those private avenues are available to those who want to engage in one-sided rhetoric, usually at less cost and a wider potential audience, and there are more and more of them all the time. The public avenues should remain the one place where we can find dialog about the issues we face.

BTR1701 says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Practical Effect

> But I don’t agree that we should chuck the
> whole concept just because there are other
> private and non-exclusive avenues for information.

You’re arguing the philosophy and ignoring the practical reality.

In reality, a radio broadcaster will not be too keen on providing equal time to counter Rush Limbaugh’s three hour show. He gets paid by advertisers for Limbaugh’s show. He makes money on that. The equal time he would be forced to hand over under the Fairness Doctrine will be three hours of zero revenue for him. Therefore, rather than give equal time to both views, he will most likely just opt to drop Limbaugh’s show altogether and run something that doesn’t require equal time– like music.

[And of course this doesn’t even address the point Mike brought up where a given issue may have multiple points of view. Say Rush Limbaugh does a segment on global warming. Who gets to provide the rebuttal? The pro-nuclear energy crowd? What about the people who think that’s a bad idea, too, and want to talk about wind and solar and hydro? What about the people who think hydro is a bad idea because it harms rivers? Who gets to decide which group has the right of rebuttal? Or does the Fairness Doctrine require equal time for everyone? In which case, Limbaugh’s one segment on global warming could result in a station having to clear it’s schedule for an *entire day* just to provide “fairness”. It’s ridiculous on its face.]

The high-minded philosophy of “fairness” is all well and good but the end result will just be censorship, plain and simple. And the folks pushing to bring back the Fairness Doctrine *know* that. That’s why they’re doing it. And that’s why anyone who values the 1st Amendment even a little bit should be firmly against their efforts.

raider says:

Talk radio

Seems like a jab at radio stations that do conservative talk radio. If the station or show has to be fair than that would give dems an in on a market that they are mostly left out of.

And to second Mark Murphy it is not the Goverment’s job to tell me what to think. Disparity in beliefs are what makes a country strong. The last thing I want is to become a machine.

Fred Nerks says:


…is mainly aimed at conservative talk radio. It seems somewhat perverse that the “liberals”, champions of free speech, want most to impose the “fairness doctrine”, which nobody can possibly truly believe will enhance freedom of expression.

It’s also revealing that these high-powered liberals seem so attracted to such a simple-minded solution to what they see as a problem. Didn’t Air America compete with conservative talk radio? And what happend to it? It crashed and burned because nobody (or, more generously, insufficient numbers) listened to it.

I guess speech is free, as long as you agree with Pelosi’s et al point of view.

Finnbjorn says:

Re: Market forces

A media company doesn’t profit at all by giving time to global warming if it’s parent company is a carbon giant; and, as I understand it, the carbon giants own an unsettling amount of the media. This is the problem with private ownership of the media. Ofcourse, public ownership of the media isn’t any better.

I think it was Robert Hienlien who said: “Autocracy makes the erronous assertion that one man is wiser than a million men; whereas, democracy makes the erronous assertion that a million men are wiser than one.”

Scott Frey (user link) says:

The great appeal of the web as a source of political news is that there hasn’t been a real attempt to regulate the balance of opinions that exist online. I would be really concerned about how that could change if we went down the road of nationalizing the internet as Vint Cerf recently suggested. Frankly, there is so much that is disgusting and wrong with the concept of turning more crap over to the government that I wouldn’t even know where to start.

Gary L Wallin (user link) says:


There certainly is a need for fairness. But a return to the “Fairness Doctine” won’t get us there. It will just establish another Legal/Regulatory framework to be exploited by the same old players. Free Speech (that is required to be fair) isn’t free speech — it’s regulated and censored speech that fits into someones ‘fair and balanced’ scheme. Speak Freely! Speak Fairly! Make it known that you expect others to do so, too.

matt says:


Nancy Pelosi doesn’t support our right to free speech, she supports Nancy Pelosi’s right to free speech.

How long before everyone realizes what a collosal mistake Pelosi is and deposes this wicked wretch?

Her “first 100 days of change” saw little more than her clucking in front of cameras looking like some mutated fusion of E.T. and Vanity the smurf.

Clueby4 says:

Lack of compensation for use of PUBLIC resources!

The other part of the fairness doctrine, was to enable a means of benefiting the public for use of right of way.

Think about that for a second. Currently, companies that are granted right of way provide effectively no public compensation for the privilege. This is a result of the “revolving door” issue our government experiencing.

USF (universal service fund) is a great example of the scam these companies are pulling, passing the cost of public directly onto the public, and worst they inappropriately exploiting that resource for non-related projects.

It always seem to elude most who flap about businesses that exists by the privilege of right of way that they should be required to provide some form of compensation for the access. The fairy tale concept of the “free market” is often used despite the fact that there is NO SUCH THING. Maybe if there were only two humans on the planet.

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