Back in the Neanderthal days of television news, we had something called the Fairness Doctrine enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Doctrine was enacted in 1949. At the time, the FCC defined the Doctrine in its “Report on Editorializing,” which stated ”the public interest requires ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views, and the Commission believes that the principle applies…to all discussion of issues of importance to the public.”
The Doctrine specifically demanded that public issues shall be covered as part of the broadcast industry obligation to the public – and that there be “ample airtime for opposing views.” Read that last phrase one more time.
The Fairness Doctrine remained in force until 1989, when the FCC ended it – and with it ended all semblance of fairness and objectivity in the news media. What followed was an evolution toward biased reporting with no opportunities for formal rebuttal – and damn few opposing opinions.
Before the end of the Fairness Doctrine, radio and television offered clearly labeled editorial opinion apart from the news – and provided opportunities for any citizen to present an opposite view. The image atop this commentary is of me providing one of those rebuttals – obviously, a long time ago.
Two changes in television – and radio – undermined fairness. The first was the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine – as noted above — and the second was the growth of cable news. Suddenly the network chieftains had the power to be corrupt – and you know how power inevitably corrupts.
Broadcast news – NBC, CBS, ABC – are still obligated to serve the public interest to maintain their broadcast licenses – although that is hardly enforced these days.
The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine assumed that the television networks would end their practice of editorializing. And they did – at least in terms of official and clearly designated editorials. But without the firewall between news and editorial, opinion began to take over – edging out the objective presentation news. Editorial opinion became the stock and trade of the one-time news profession.
This was – and is – most notable in cable news. In fact, the cable stations were never constrained by the Fairness Doctrine. As a subscriber service, they were not using the public airways – as were the broadcast networks. Ergo, they were not controlled by the FCC. While the average viewer may not recognize the difference as they watch the screen, the legal issue makes a huge difference in what cable news is allowed to do.
To understand how the lack of accountability for fairness and honesty, we can look at CNN’s “Reality Check” with John Avlon. It is billed as a feature of their news coverage. It is actually editorial opinion parading as news analysis – and provided a name that belies his actual function.
Maybe it is time to re-establish some form of the Fairness Doctrine. Although controversial, it would not be difficult legally or constitutionally to again cover broadcast television and radio. To have it apply to cable news, the Congress would have to reconsider the designation of the subscription networks – from a private business to some form of a regulated public utility. This is the same issue the Congress faces in terms of the social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
The news media is essential to a democracy – but only if it serves to educate. It becomes an authoritarian vehicle if it indoctrinates.
It is obvious that something must be done to prevent major communication platforms from becoming censors – essentially serving as propaganda vehicles for a narrow partisan political and philosophic agenda. The Fairness Doctrine would be a good first start.
So, there ’tis.