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The Unfair Fairness Doctrine

November 10, 2008

Now that the Left controls our government, thanks to the recent election, there may well be a stronger effort made to stop the opposition from Talk Radio, a plan to drive Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and other conservatives off the air by reviving the Fairness Doctrine. Thus, I think that once again we need to look at the reasoning behind the original doctrine and why it was needed then, but is unnecessary now.

Do you remember what our media was like many decades ago? I am sure that many of you are too young to go back more than two decades, so let me explain, and to remind some people who might be older, what this broadcast veteran remembers.

Before television, our radio stations were basically those that belonged to or were affiliated with the networks, and so most of them carried dramas, called "soap operas," during the day and celebrity shows all evening. These were the days of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, and dramas like Gangbusters, and Gunsmoke. It was not until 1948, that I was able to buy my first black and white TV set, with a screen size of only 10 inches. In those days we did not have cable TV, nor computers, and thus, the networks slowly switched all their nightly radio programs over to evening television. However, to receive these programs, we had to install huge antennas on our rooftops. If we lived in a major metropolitan city, we might be able to see a maximum of three TV stations; if we lived on the outskirts or in a suburb, we were lucky to be able to receive just one TV station.

It was then, according to the Museum of Broadcasting, that the FCC took the view, in 1949, that station licensees were "public trustees," and as such had an obligation to afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance. The Commission later held that stations were also obligated to actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming that addressed those issues. This was understandable back then, because it was feared that broadcast owners could dominate the public with their own personal political views.

The Museum of Broadcasting further reminds us, "The fairness doctrine ran parallel to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937 which required stations to offer 'equal opportunity' to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station. The attempt was to balance -- to force an even handedness. Section 315 exempted news programs, interviews and documentaries. But the doctrine would include such efforts. Another major difference should be noted here: Section 315 was federal law, passed by Congress. The fairness doctrine was simply FCC policy."

This was not true as far as newspapers were concerned. I can remember when the average home would subscribe to as many as four newspapers per day-- two in the morning and two in the late afternoon. Back then, they were only 2 cents each on a news rack. As a boy, my parents used to have four Boston newspapers thrown on our front porch daily. When I came to LA, it had four newspapers, too --- The LA Times, The LA Mirror, the LA Herald-Express and the LA Examiner.

As TV grew rapidly and matured with color, it began to take over the news, causing newspapers to lose readers and advertisers. As this trend grew, newspapers shrunk to only one per city.

Radio had almost died, but then discovered "format radio" that appealed to what was called niche or specialty groups. It started with "Top Forty" popular record hits that became highly successful. This was followed by 24 hour news radio stations as was pioneered by two LA radio companies ---KNX and KFWB.

Finally, talk radio was started with people like the late Joe Pyne. His daily taped, syndicated radio program was heard in 254 markets and Pyne was also the number-one morning guy in LA in 1966. He was so popular he was allowed to broadcast the 6-10 a.m. program from his home. He also was the first outraged, outspoken voice on national television, the father of modern conservative talk shows; blazing a path for Morton Downey, Jr., Wally George, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and many others. Radio really grew and began to dominate the marketplace in the daytime. Today there are 31 AM plus 49 FM-a total of 80 radio stations-in just the city of Los Angeles, all with their own specialty niche audience groups.

As Cable TV brought in new channels such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, network news began to slip. CBS, NBC and ABC began to substitute features for much of their hard news, relegating most political news to headlines or just two minutes of TV time. Between features and commercials, there was not much time left in a half-hour news period.

And so, as both TV stations and radio stations multiplied with even small towns being supplied not only by many AM and FM radio stations but also by cable suddenly bringing in hundreds of TV channels broadcasting all types of viewpoints, this opened the door to stopping the so-called fairness policy.

In 1985, the FCC issued its Fairness Report, asserting that the doctrine was no longer having its intended effect, might actually have a "chilling effect" and might be in violation of the First Amendment. In a 1987 case, Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the courts declared that the doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. The FCC dissolved the doctrine in August of that year.

Jumping to 2007, what was feared back in the 40s, when people had only one station to which they could listen, had begun to happen as both Network news and Cable news began to all echo the policies of the new Secular Progressives who were intent on socializing the American government as had happened in Europe. The only opposition voices came from the new talk radio.

Yes, Fox Cable News, had turned half of its views to conservatives, but it was the lone TV network doing this. It was up against the liberal views of CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, and taxpayer supported, government sponsored NPR! It was also against the new liberal blogs and Left-Wing web sites such as www.MoveOn.org on the rapidly-growing Internet. Computers had become an essential part of every home. And, of course, all far-left groups still had access to Fox to counteract any views held by conservatives.

Yet, this was not enough for the leftists. As of early 2007, Senator Bernie Sanders, along with Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Maurice Hinchey and Louise Slaughter had announced their support of legislation which would reverse the 1987 FCC decision and restore the Fairness Doctrine. This was a deliberate attempt to eliminate the remaining voice of the Conservatives-talk radio!

Now, in 2009, we can expect this drive to be pushed again by the new Democrat majority and the Democrat President in an effort to stop the loyal opposition whose only voice may be limited to talk radio.

Based on this desire of some of our liberal government politicians for fairness, which medium really needs a Fairness Doctrine applied? It is certainly not talk radio-to do that would require the Unfair Fairness Doctrine!

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Copyright ©2008 Lee Ellis