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Fairness Doctrine, or Fair and Balanced?
January 29, 2004
By Broadcast Democrat

Bill O'Reilly recently launched into an editorial tirade on the O'Reilly Factor regarding the "rights of Christians to remove any religion from schools that they find offensive." He was responding to the ACLU's challenges to remove school prayer and/or the pledge of allegiance. It was not in a book, on a website, or anywhere but right on the TV, and in the middle of what passes for news programming. Had you tuned into it, you might have mistaken it for real news. How is it that we find ourselves in a situation where a media outlet as large as Fox News can be so one-sided?

Surely we have noticed the neo-conservative forces hard at work in our modern media. As a long time member of the media I have seen many things come to pass, and many times I have helped decide which stories are and are not told to you. Every day I tried to make choices that best reflected the stories I was given to tell my local community. Not only is this generally understood as "proper journalism" it was also a bastion of media ethics and principles for the majority of the existence of the FCC until the Reagan Administration. I'm probably part of a dying breed, and it may be only a matter of time before this concept is gone from broadcasting entirely.

The conceptual framework of media equity had been enshrined in the Fairness Doctrine, an ethical principle of broadcasting which was intended to provide accurate coverage of controversial issues. Under the ideology of the "public trusteeship" of broadcasters, an obligation of this status was to adhere to this doctrine. The doctrine was brought forth with the goal of preventing stations and/or broadcasters from becoming the tools of a singular point of view.

Another measure taken by the FCC to prevent this "mouthpiece effect" was the Mayflower Doctrine. This was meant to prevent editorializing by the station, and was later relaxed to allow a point-counterpoint approach. It preserved the balance between freedom of speech, ethical journalism and "headline-hunger." Some old school journalists and members of the media still try to adhere to these ideals, regardless of personal feelings and/or political affiliations. This is why we in the media have such respect for names like John Chancellor (NBC), Walter Kronkite (CBS), or Hugh Downing (ABC). These were people who generally gave you the straight story without any spin. At least, that's how we felt in the media when the Fairness Doctrine was alive and well. Of course they'll have their own opinions; they aren't robots. But they kept it to themselves. Think about it; how many people do we look up to with the same reverence or respect in our nightly news selections? Today, many of them are interchangeable puppets.

In 1969, the Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC (395 U.S. 367) court case tested the constitutionality of the Doctrine and found it to be "limiting of public debate" and set in motion the forces which eventually stripped it from broadcasting canon in 1987.

However, this ruling was flawed. Based on the scarcity principle of the broadcast spectrum (ie. the channels on the dial), it did not consider the explosion of cable, Internet, and digital radio services (like XM satellite radio). There isn't a scarcity of media when 200 TV, 200 Radio channels, and endless amounts of web pages await a visitor, especially when many are neo-conservative in nature. (Please note: Republican as it is traditionally defined is not a bad word to me. Unfortunately, it has been overrun by social politics.)

Freed from the burden of having to air alternate or contemporary viewpoints, the right-wing has seized on the opportunity to broadcast and propagate itself. According to Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB), "Research demonstrates that news and public affairs substantially declined after termination of the Fairness Doctrine, contrary to broadcaster promises. What did increase were right-wing talk shows and religious right ministries, now free to editorialize against their favorite demons without fear of contradiction."

So naturally they would be opposed to the idea of the fairness doctrine coming back into play. As a result, big media gets bigger and bigger without the fairness doctrine, all becoming the mouthpiece of the Neo-Conservatives. Consider this in tandem with the recent restructuring of ownership rules by the FCC to allow more stations to be owned by one owner, and a dangerous trend towards media fascism is dangerously close.

Imagine a world where 35% of the national audience as a maximum is held by one owner, so maybe three major national owners who all contribute to the Republican party? We know CBS and FOX do it, so that's two out of three. Frightening. In this world, Fox News would be the least of our worries. And by paying for it by purchasing cable service or even the goods of their advertisers, it would get even worse. Thankfully Congress, mainly the straight-thinking members, realized that super-consolidation of the media is bad. However, it could easily come up again. With the FCC as an independent regulatory agency controlled by Republicans (Michael Powell, FCC Chairman, is Colin Powell's son after all), it could quietly come up and become mandate again. Think Clear Channel with a vengeance.

I can't be the only one who has witnessed firsthand the motions of the right-wing media juggernaut as of late. As a long time member of the broadcast world, I have seen the media many come to depend on for news and information change in many ways. However, I feel that a media that is more interested in the top headlines of scandal and moneymaking has wholeheartedly abused these trusts. Granted, at the end of the day, broadcasting is a business meant to make money. However, it is worth noting how regulations and laws have been gutted since the Reagan Administration. It is very easy to see motion towards a near-fascist representation of our world.

As a broadcast veteran, and as a moderate Democrat, I urge you to support the return of the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting. Not only would it better the media to be open to alternative and contemporary viewpoints, it would also bring our media world closer to that of what the makers of it (Sarnoff, Armstrong, DeForest, Marconi) had intended it to be; a media used for the betterment of public safety and public good. Instead it has become a perverted, money making scheme that is about the special interests of the money holders. Fairness be damned.

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