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Patrick
Henry
12.17.04
Politics and Economy:
What Happened to Fairness?
More on This Story:
History of the Fairness Doctrine

You may remember hearing about Sinclair Broadcast Group in October 2004. They attracted attention from other media outlets when they announced plans to air STOLEN HONOR, described by some as an "anti-Kerry documentary." Ultimately, the documentary was not aired, as critics called for balance from Sinclair by way of programming that showed the other side of the story, calling on a principle called the "fairness doctrine." While this doctrine is no longer enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), it hasn't faded from public discourse. What is the history behind this doctrine?

The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, called for stations to offer "equal opportunity" to all legally qualified political candidates running for office. (Learn about the history of televised presidential debates.) The idea was to ensure even-handedness in a time when available frequencies were limited. This federal law did not apply to news programs, interviews, and documentaries. During the 1940s, stations were prevented by the FCC's "Mayflower Doctrine" from editorializing, but by the end of the decade, the ban had softened to allow editorializing only if other points of view were also aired to balance those of the station.

In 1949, the FCC adopted the fairness doctrine, a policy that viewed station licensees as "public trustees" and, as such, responsible for addressing controversial issues of public importance. The key requirement was that stations allowed opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on these issues.

Later, in 1967, two corollary doctrines were added. The first was the political editorial rule, requiring that if a station editorialized either for or against a candidate for public office, the station had to notify the disfavored candidate within 24 hours and allow him/her to reply to the editorial; the second was the personal attack rule, which states that when a person or group's character or integrity is impugned during the discussion of a controversial issue, the station must notify the person within one week, and offer a reasonable time for response.

By the 1980s, many stations saw the FCC rules as an unnecessary burden. Some journalists considered the fairness doctrine a violation of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press; they felt reporters should be able to make their own decisions about balancing stories. In order to avoid the requirement of presenting contrasting viewpoints, some journalists chose not to cover certain controversial issues at all. In addition, the political climate of the Reagan administration favored deregulation. When the fairness doctrine came before the courts in 1987, they decided that since the doctrine was not mandated by Congress, it did not have to be enforced. FCC suspended all but the two corollary doctrines at this time.

As this was happening, Congress passed a bill to make the fairness doctrine into law. However, President Reagan vetoed the legislation and there were insufficient votes to override the veto. In 2000, when the FCC failed to justify the two remaining corollary rules, the political editorial rule and the personal attack rule were repealed.

Efforts to resurrect the fairness doctrine have come up again and again before Congress, but no bill has yet been passed. Read a conversation between Bill Moyers and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter about her latest effort, The MEDIA Act.

For further research, visit our FCC and media deregulation resources.

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