What is the Fairness Doctrine?

Ken Black

The Fairness Doctrine is a policy that used to be enforced by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requiring broadcasters holding a public license to present all major sides of an argument fairly. However, the policy was discontinued in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan. A new administration at the FCC felt the policy violated the First Amendment and unnecessarily hurt the public interest.

There have been attempts within Congress to restore the Fairness Doctrine, which was discontinued in 1985.
There have been attempts within Congress to restore the Fairness Doctrine, which was discontinued in 1985.

When the FCC canceled the Fairness Doctrine, the U.S. Congress tried to codify the doctrine in law that would have kept the policy in effect. The Congress, still run by Democrats, felt it was still a worthwhile endeavor, even with the criticisms leveled against it. However, the bill was vetoed by Reagan and the Democrats did not have enough support for the legislation to override a presidential veto.

Ronald Reagan discontinued the Fairness Doctrine.
Ronald Reagan discontinued the Fairness Doctrine.

The theory behind the Fairness Doctrine is that as long as public airwaves are being used, no one side should have total control of the airwaves. If those airwaves are owned by the public, the all major positions the general public may have need to be addressed. These positions could advocate for a certain political candidate or issue. It made no difference.

While the Fairness Doctrine may have what many would consider to be a reasonable purpose, some criticized the policy by saying that enforcement was subjective. It left it up to federal regulators to determine which arguments should get equal time and which should not. In some cases, the FCC may have used the Fairness Doctrine to force a certain issue, but may have allowed other issues to go without enforcement. Depending on one's perspective, the federal government may have been enacting a policy that actually had the result of advocating for a certain position.

The Fairness Doctrine still remains a suspended policy, but some say it is now more necessary than ever. Due to the proliferation of talk radio, which many thing tends to lean toward the mainly conservative side, many are now calling for a new Fairness Doctrine. If enacted, it may force radio stations, and even some television stations, to carry programming given another side of the political philosophy.

In 2006 and subsequent years, since the Democrats regained both houses of the U.S. Congress, there have been some efforts to restore the Fairness Doctrine. However, any serious efforts to restore the policy were deemed a waste of time under President George W. Bush, a Republican who did not support the policy and would likely veto a restoration effort just as Reagan did. It is possible, with a new administration in 2009, the Fairness Doctrine could be reinstated. However, it would face significant opposition from a number of powerful lobbying groups and its passage is not guaranteed.

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