By Donella Meadows
–November 12, 1987–
The Fairness Doctrine is gone.
Most people don’t even know for sure what the Fairness Doctrine was, much less that it has been repealed, or why they should care. It’s easier than you might expect to strip away democratic rights from the public without even raising a fuss.
The Fairness Doctrine is best explained by telling a few stories of its use.
In 1976 when Congress was debating legislation on strip mine reclamation, radio station WHAR in Clarksburg, West Virginia, refused to carry any coverage of the issue. The station’s owner said the subject was too controversial. Citizens used the Fairness Doctrine to force the station to air the debate — both sides of it.
Oklahoma Gas and Electric launched a major campaign in 1976 to promote its request for a rate increase. The Oklahoma Coalition for Older People approached radio and TV stations asking for a balanced presentation as required by the Fairness Doctrine. One station then scheduled two half-hour public affairs programs on the rate hike. Others aired spot announcements opposing the hike.
The Fairness Doctrine was an ingenious device, because it empowered the public, not the government, to monitor the fairness of the airwaves. Citizens who felt that a public issue was not being fairly discussed brought complaints directly to broadcasters. Most of those complaints were settled then and there, usually by the simple provision of time for another point of view. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) came into a case only rarely, when the broadcaster and the citizens could not agree. Even then, the FCC did not impose fines or dictate how the station should respond; it only directed the station to come up with more balanced coverage.
One of the times when the FCC did get involved was the case that killed the Fairness Doctrine.
In 1982 WTVH-TV in Syracuse, New York, ran ads promoting the Nine Mile II nuclear power plant as a “sound investment for New York’s future.” The Syracuse Peace Council asked for time to point out that the plant, originally budgeted at $400 million, had by then cost $5.1 billion and was far from a sound investment. The station appealed to the FCC, which ruled that WTVH must air the opposing point of view.
But the owners of WTVH appealed that ruling. The case was brought to the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals, with Judge Robert Bork, of all people, on the bench, along with then Judge Antonin Scalia. The Court reached far beyond the limits of the particular case and asked the FCC to determine whether the Fairness Doctrine restricts the right of free speech of broadcasters.
The Reagan Administration, which has always opposed the Fairness Doctrine, was waiting for this opportunity. In August 1987 the FCC repealed the Doctrine, claiming that it was unconstitutional, although the Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in 1969 that the Fairness Doctrine was not only constitutional but essential to democracy. The public airwaves should not just express the opinions of those who can pay for air time; they must allow the electorate to be informed about all sides of controversial issues.
Jonathan Puth is one of the first people to experience Life after the Fairness Doctrine. The repeal came just before a referendum in Washington D.C. to institute a 5-cent bottle deposit. The bottling industry had budgeted $2 million to fight the deposit. Puth, the director of a citizen’s group favoring the bottle bill, had “a cash balance hovering around zero”. But under the Fairness Doctrine he had convinced radio stations to give him 1/2 to 1/3 as much time as the indudstry had bought.
After the repeal some stations continued to give him time. Others tried to renege completely. One TV station refused to balance the bottling industry ads with any other viewpoint. Two stations did air Puth’s counter-ads, early in the morning or late at night. The industry ads were shown with the prime-time nightly news.
In spite of the unequal campaigns, 45% of the D.C. voters cast their ballots for the bottle bill. Puth says he probably fared better than others will in the future, because he had garnered some time commitments before the repeal, because the stations had not yet worked out their post-Doctrine policies, and because his fight happened to be in Washington, where broadcasters know that Congress is trying to restore the Fairness Doctrine.
The Doctrine was never a law — it existed for 38 years as a policy of the FCC. Last April Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill to turn the Fairness Doctrine into law. President Reagan vetoed it. Congress is now trying to attach the Fairness Doctrine to some other legislation that will be unlikely to receive a veto.
The Public Media Center (25 Scotland Street, San Francisco CA 94133) puts out a book called “Talking Back” about the history of the Fairness Doctrine and about how citizens could use it — back in the days when we could use it. In the front of the book is a cartoon showing a TV announcer saying, “When we want contrasting opinions, we’ll ask for them. Until then, sit back and shut up.”
That’s how it is now, folks.
Congress will be trying to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine within the next few weeks. Let your representatives know how you feel about it. Even better, let President Reagan know. If we want our Fairness Doctrine rights back, we’re going to have to make a fuss.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987