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The so-called Fairness Doctrine was a policy established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949 “to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair.” But in practice, the new Doctrine created a complex formula that, as conservative writer Ed Morrissey puts it, required broadcasters “to turn their stations into [forums for] ping-ponging punditry,” where every expression of a conservative viewpoint had to be counterbalanced by equal air time for a liberal or leftist perspective on the same subject. As a result, says Morrissey, “most broadcasters simply refused to air any political programming, as it created a liability for station owners for being held hostage to all manner of complaints about lack of balance.”

Former John F. Kennedy administration official Bill Ruder once acknowledged that the Fairness Doctrine's underlying purpose, from the outset, was to purge from the media as many conservative voices as possible: “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too costly to continue.”

The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 set the stage for the meteoric rise of conservative talk radio, which was thenceforth unencumbered by the logistical nightmare of trying to determine which media messages were "fair" (thus requiring no ideological counterbalance), and which were  "controversial" (thereby requiring equal time for opposing views).

Today talk radio is heavily dominated by conservative voices; liberal/left enterprises like the now-defunct Air America Radio have failed to draw audiences of any significant size. Because they are unable to compete, many leftists strongly advocate the re-implementation of the Fairness Doctrine, so that government regulations may diminish conservatism's influence in radio programming in a way that the free market has failed to do.

From a practical standpoint, however, the left realizes that any effort to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine would be extremely controversial and could be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment. Thus many leftists, rather than openly pursue a new Fairness Doctrine, now seek to achieve the same basic outcome by exploiting a vague FCC rule called “localism.” Localism regulations nebulously stipulate that broadcast stations, in order to maintain their licenses, must "serve the interests" of the communities in their respective listening areas. But these regulations do not recognize audience size or listener loyalty as valid barometers of the degree to which such interests are in fact being served.

Rather, those interests are defined in terms of "diversity." “The Structural Imbalance of Talk Radio,” a lengthy 2007 report co-authored by Mark Lloyd (whom President Barack Obama would later appoint as FCC diversity chief), claims that because “91 percent of the total weekday talk-radio programming is conservative, and 9 percent is progressive,” the stations and networks that air such shows are failing to "operate in the public interest and to afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of issues of public importance."

Lloyd writes that “stations owned by racial or ethnic minorities [or by women] are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows, and [are] more likely to air progressive hosts or shows” – because conservative programming “is so far out of step with their local audiences.” 
“Ultimately,” Lloyd maintains, “... increasing ownership diversity, both in terms of the race/ethnicity and gender of owners, as well as the number of independent local owners, will lead to more diverse programming, more choices for listeners, and more owners who are responsive to their local communities and serve the public interest.” In other words, “diversity” and “localism” go hand-in-hand, and both can be used as pretexts for shifting the political balance of radio programming leftward.

Under localism’s dictates, any station that fails to placate local regulatory boards would be subject to license revocation by the FCC; those licenses would then be transferred to nonwhite broadcasters who, by and large, would air programs with a leftwing slant. Barack Obama himself has cited localism as a valid consideration in the issuance of broadcast licenses. On September 20, 2007, then-Senator Obama submitted a written statement supporting localism at an FCC hearing held at the Chicago headquarters of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push.

In a December 2010 speech at Columbia University, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps asserted that his agency should conduct a "public value test" of every commercial broadcast station at relicensing time. He also stated that station relicensing should occur every four years rather than every eight years, as the custom had been. "If a station passes the Public Value Test, it of course keeps the license it has earned to use the people’s airwaves," Copps said. "If not, it goes on probation for a year, renewable for an additional year if it demonstrates measurable progress. If the station fails again, give the license to someone who will use it to serve the public interest." For details of Copps' proposal, click here.


Unmasking the Myths Behind the Fairness Doctrine
By Brian Fitzpatrick
June 2008

The Censorship Doctrine
By Sean Higgins
January 2009

Fairness Doctrine: History and Constitutional Issues
By Kathleen Ann Ruane
July 13, 2011

Broadcast Localism and the Lessons of the Fairness Doctrine
by John Samples
May 27, 2009

The Fairness Doctrine: An Archaic Policy That Violates the First Amendment
By The American Center for Law and Justice
August 1, 2007

The Fairness Doctrine and the First Amendment
By Thomas W. Hazlett
April 2006

The Fairness Doctrine Redux: Media Bias and the Rights of Broadcasters
By Erik Ugland
January 9, 2006

Back to Muzak? Congress and the Un-Fairness Doctrine
By James L. Gattuso
May 23, 2007

About Those "Public" Airwaves: The Discredited Notions Behind the Fairness Doctrine
By Charles J. Sykes
Fall 2007

Why the Fairness Doctrine Is Anything but Fair
By Adam Thierer
October 29, 1993

The Unfairness Doctrine
By Paul Greenberg
October 17, 2008

The Left Wing Targets Conservative Media
By Kevin Mooney
August 2011


For resources on this topic, click here.


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