How Fair Is the Fairness Doctrine?
There is a move afoot to resurrect the misnamed Fairness Doctrine and impose it on conservative broadcasters. If it is successful, liberal politicians will debilitate Christian radio and virtually shut down sources unfriendly to their agenda for a politically correct, leftist America.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he overheard two prominent, left-leaning senators discuss reinstating the Fairness Doctrine to “fix” talk radio. “They said,” Inhofe stated, “‘We’ve got to do something about this. These are nothing but far-right extremists. We’ve got to have balance. There’s got to be a legislative fix for this.’” The “far-right extremists” are conservative talk-radio personalities who have kept Americans abreast of the real facts of life on important issues affecting the country.
The Fairness Doctrine came into being as a regulation of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949. It required broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” After a number of controversial skirmishes, however, the FCC later withdrew the regulation. In a 1974 unanimous decision by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “Government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.”
The FCC decided in 1987 to scrap the policy, saying it “restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters” and “actually inhibits the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists.”
Several months prior to this decision, President Ronald Reagan vetoed legislation that would have turned the Fairness Doctrine into law. However, the move did not stifle promoters of bureaucratic control of the airwaves. In 1991 some congressmen tried to resuscitate the Doctrine, but President George H. W. Bush threatened another veto.
In the heat of the current political campaign, the Fairness Doctrine has been dragged out again, this time by liberal congressmen who want to silence conservative talk radio and deprive it of control of its own programming.
Interestingly, talk radio has become the most potent force for conservative expression in America. When the Fairness Doctrine was first proposed, the country had 2,881 radio and 98 television stations. By 1989 the number had grown to more than 10,000 radio and 1,400 television stations. Since then, there has been a veritable explosion of information sources, making it impossible for a single school of thought to monopolize public opinion.
What nettles liberals is their lack of success in promoting their agenda. In the free market of radio, millions of people are rejecting the social, political, and antimilitary radicalism served up by the “mainstream” media and are tuning in to broadcasts they believe are more fair and balanced.
As a matter of fact, liberals attempted to launch anticonservative programming with little success. The heralded return of talk-show host Phil Donahue in 2002 on MSNBC was touted as a liberal counterweight to Fox News. But after six months of dismal ratings, the show was cancelled. After the Donahue show tanked, the head of a news television consulting firm reportedly said, “The political talk show format has yet to prove—and may never—that it can support a liberal voice.” The struggling, left-wing Air America Radio network appears to have proven his point by filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2006.
But the failure of liberal talk radio in the marketplace has not dampened the spirits of its political bedfellows who want to restrict freedom of expression. In June Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) introduced a bill in the House prohibiting the FCC, for at least one year, from using federal funds to impose the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasts featuring conservative radio hosts. The Pence bill was adopted 309–115.
Pence, himself a former radio talk-show host, commented on his Web site: “Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves. It is a dangerous proposal to suggest the government should be in the business of rationing free speech.”
The bottom line for Christian broadcasters is the implicit danger of being regulated by bureaucrats who are hostile to evangelical Christian convictions on spiritual and biblical issues mandated in the Word of God. Freedom of speech is the glorious gift we have been given in our democratic society. But with the full frontal assault of radical forces against evangelicals and traditional biblical standards, you can be sure a revived Fairness Doctrine would be grossly unfair to the public expression of conservative Christian beliefs.