Wicker Says Fairness Doctrine Is Far From Fair

December 29, 2008

Leading members of the Democratic congressional majority are attempting to silence talk radio by resurrecting the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.”  Contrary to its name, this arcane regulation would limit free speech by injecting government control over programming on our airways.

Freedom of speech, one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, is part of the foundation our country was built upon.  Our government does not, nor should it ever, have the responsibility to modify that right and thus regulate content of speech. 

                                       ANYTHING BUT FAIR
The Fairness Doctrine was a Federal Communications Commission rule that was first put into effect in 1949.  Its intent was to mandate “fairness” over the airways by requiring broadcasters to provide equal airtime for opposing points of view on controversial topics.  In short, the federal government mandated that a conservative viewpoint was countered by a liberal viewpoint (and vice versa) in an attempt to be “fair.” 

The justification for the rule was the “scarcity” of broadcast channels in the 1940s and the perceived need for the government to ensure broadcast fairness.  At the time the Fairness Doctrine was put in place, television was in its infancy and there were only a limited number of AM radio stations.  As time went on, the advent of FM radio and cable television drastically increased the number of channels available to consumers, making the scarcity argument less and less defensible.  The rule, which was in place for nearly four decades, was finally repealed by the Reagan Administration in 1987.
                                  INHIBITING PUBLIC DEBATE
In addition to infringing upon the First Amendment, the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine would have a negative impact on the quality of broadcast programming.  As it did in the nearly forty years it was in place, the rule would discourage debate on controversial issues, something essential to the health of any democracy.  Furthermore, members of the mainstream media agree that the Fairness Doctrine would suppress public debate.

In discussing the Fairness Doctrine, Bill Monroe, the host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” from 1975-1984, said the rule led to “timid, don’t-rock-the-boat coverage.”  Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, hardly a right wing zealot, added: “Once a newsperson has to stop and consider what a government agency will think of something he or she wants to put on the air, an invaluable element of freedom has been lost.”  And as the Washington Times recently editorialized: “The most important effect of this trampling on the First Amendment was self censorship, as broadcasters hedged their programming.  The result was blander, more stifled, and less free coverage.” 

Perhaps the greatest evidence of how the Fairness Doctrine limited debate and harmed programming is seen in the growth of talk radio since the rule was repealed.  In 1990, there were approximately 400 stations with talk radio format nationwide.  By 2006, that number had climbed to more than 1,400. 

Because of public preference of radio listeners, the majority of talk radio consists of conservative programming, while liberal programming has been unsuccessful due to a lack of listenership.  It is wrong for liberal members of Congress to create an artificial demand and advocate for reinstating the so-called Fairness Doctrine as a means to ensure “balance”.    

I support legislation introduced last year, the Broadcaster Freedom Act, to ban the doctrine permanently. 

                                     PROTECTING FREE SPEECH
In the modern media world there are plenty of opportunities for all sides of an argument to be heard – whether conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between.  Reinstatement of the so-called Fairness Doctrine is not only unnecessary, it would be decidedly unfair.  Resurrecting this rule would smother healthy debate in our country at a time when we are dealing with difficult issues that demand vigorous public discussion.  Congress should do the right thing and pass legislation that protects free speech ensuring the Fairness Doctrine is not given a second life.