By Alec Pruchnicki
One of the possible reasons American politics is so polarized is that supporters of both sides never hear the opinions, arguments, and “facts” from the other side. There used to be a partial solution to this called the fairness doctrine. It required that TV broadcasters address issues important to the public and that they present both sides. Up to the 1980s it was common for TV networks to present editorials on issues, and eventually someone from the opposing side would come on and present a brief rebuttal. That tradition is gone.
It was during the Reagan administration that the format began to disappear. The FCC determined that it was unfair to broadcasters to tell them what to present. In 1987, the rule establishing the fairness doctrine was changed, and in 2011, during Obama’s presidency, it was eliminated entirely, along with a purge of about 80 out of date regulations. Over the years, attempts by Democrats to reinstate the rule, and by Republicans to ban it permanently, have failed to get through Congress; it stands as an administrative decision by the FCC—although there have been some Supreme Court decisions over the years concerning it.
Conservatives, and some liberals, have said that telling broadcasters what they must say is an infringement on their free speech rights. But, the airwaves do not belong to the broadcasters who hold the temporary licenses; they belong to the public, according to long-lasting tradition and court decisions. This was affirmed in the 1969 Supreme Court Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC case that covered personal attacks, but also stated that the FCC had jurisdiction on issues of this type. The public, the owners of the airwaves, can set guidelines for the broadcasters.
The weakening and elimination of the doctrine, except for “equal time,” which applies to candidates running for office and still exists, has been cited as allowing for the emergence of the late Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, where one side can be promulgated without any consideration of fairness and balance. The original purpose of the doctrine was to serve the public with information, but this is often no longer the case.
To reinstate the doctrine, it is not necessary to go through Congress. The FCC can reinstate and enforce it if the will is there. Forcing broadcasters on differing sides of the political spectrum to present all positions on an issue will serve the public (the airwaves owners), in a more fair and balanced manner than the present partisan polarized atmosphere does.
Those who are against reinstatement of the fairness doctrine will fight and go to the Republican-dominated Supreme Court to prevent it. Those in favor will stress previous court decisions, and possibly international treaties, that supported the government’s obligation to serve the public (to “…promote the general welfare”). More opinions reaching the entire public’s consciousness will enable more intelligent decisions to be made on public issues. To discern truth, a wider freedom of expression might be needed in a country that is trying to remain a democracy.