Fairness Doctrine

Tools For A New Political Economy

The Fairness Doctrine — Why It Is Still So Important

Ronald Reagan’s recision of the Fairness Doctrine had enormous and enduring consequences regarding news media and information delivery in the U.S., and his action was not “inevitable” as some observers have suggested.

Consider the Fairness Doctrine terms “honest, equitable and balanced,” and then consider how the Fairness Doctrine applied those to “controversial matters” that were in the public’s interest to report. This is the heart of the Fairness Doctrine: to inform U.S. citizens in a balanced way regarding diverse perspectives around critical issues. The spirit of the Fairness Doctrine was to prevent biased or misleading journalism and media coverage, and to represent as many different perspectives on a given issue as possible — and especially opposing viewpoints — as fairly as possible. In essence, this was an effort to discourage propaganda in U.S. media that served private agendas. Propaganda is often, after all, simply reporting one side of a given issue.

Now, why did the FCC revoke the Fairness Doctrine? The Reagan administration framed the revocation under “concerns about free speech;” in other words, that the FCC’s continued enforcement could potentially interfere with some forms of free speech in media (there was no evidence that this was the case, only that this could be a concern). Even if such concerns had been validated, this simply would have required additional legislation to refine the Fairness Doctrine from Congress — but such worries are completely and utterly contradicted by the subsequent explosion of alternative media platforms (cable TV, Internet streaming, etc.). The contradiction here is obvious: if the main concern about the Fairness Doctrine (from conservatives at the time) was really impingement of free speech, how could “the Fairness Doctrine being outdated” due to a plethora of alternative media platforms also be a central consideration…? This is a duplicitous ruse. We know this because there is ALSO the issue of the 1986 SCOTUS ruling that affirmed the FCC’s ability to enforce the Fairness Doctrine on teletext technology…opening the door for its application to other media platforms as well. We can even speculate that this expansion of FCC authority over newly emerging media stoked efforts by conservatives to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine completely.

Now, it is important to appreciate that Congress DID update the Fairness Doctrine, at the time of its revocation, to address some of these issues…but Reagan vetoed that legislation. So, in reality, conservatives just didn’t like the way the Fairness Doctrine was being applied by the FCC, or how Fairness Doctrine cases had played out in the courts, or how it was already being applied to future information technologies. THAT is the real reason conservatives wanted it gone. Why? Well, not only did the Fairness Doctrine dampen neoliberal propaganda efforts, it also did not allow conservatives to restrict progressive opinions being broadcast on publicly funded media (like NPR/PBS) when conservatives controlled the FCC (this was decided in the 1984 SCOTUS ruling FCC v. League of Women Voters of California.) In other words: the Fairness Doctrine was useless to conservatives who wanted to promote their own agenda while suppressing progressive ideologies…and they just could not stand for that.

And what has happened since? Propaganda has taken over conservative for-profit media, and conservatives have both doggedly sought to defund publicly funded non-profit media, and to disallow the FCC to regulate ANY media with fairness in mind. For example, the latest repeal of Net Neutrality by a conservative-controlled FCC is completely consistent with such efforts — why not let corporations decide who gets access to what and when? Neoliberals simply do not want there to be “honest, equitable and balanced” coverage of controversial issues — not even if propaganda is being funded by Russia on Facebook or Twitter. They believe “the market” can and should determine all outcomes — in other words, whoever has the most money to begin with, or who can most effectively deceive and manipulate people, should determine what information is available to the public (as affirmed and reinforced by SCOTUS ruling in favor of Citizens United in 2010).

So…again, WHY are conservatives so concerned about the consumers and voters having access to good, balanced and fair information? Well, we’ve seen exactly why over the intervening years since the Fairness Doctrine was revoked:

  • The Oil & Gas industry doesn’t want you to know about the realities of climate change.
  • The Pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want you to know how dangerous and/or ineffective their drugs actually are.
  • The Tobacco industry doesn’t want you to know about the real health risks of vaping.
  • The wealthiest owner-shareholders don’t want you to know that trickle-down economics has never, ever worked; that economic nationalism won’t ever bring certain jobs back to the U.S.A.; that raising the minimum wage increases economic growth instead of dampening it; and that conservative economic policies almost always benefit only the wealthy few at the expense of everyone else.
  • Evangelical Christians don’t want you to know that Planned Parenthood is a much more effective way to prevent abortions than outlawing abortions has ever been.
  • The Firearms industry doesn’t wan’t you to have statistics about just how lethal their products actually are — or how rarely those weapons in the hands of ordinary citizens actually prevent crime.
  • (And so on with all sorts of other vested interests: agriculture, petrochemicals, insurance, financial institutions, etc.)

You see the pattern? There is a tremendous amount of money at stake — and the underpinnings of tribal belief systems along with it.
Facts, evidence and statistics almost universally undermine conservative positions…so why would conservatives EVER wan’t news and information media to really be “honest, equitable and balanced?”

So…what has happened since the Fairness Doctrine ended, and Reagan blocked Congress’ statutory implementations? Well, if you do some research on this you’ll see that ALL conservative news media is, in fact, not just heavily biased towards supporting untruths, they are also more prone to deliberate counterfactual reporting, sometimes even fabricating stories that support neoliberal agendas and a conservative worldview. In contrast, left-leaning media can indeed be biased, but doesn’t approach the level of deceptive misinformation and outright lies that are perpetrated by right-leaning media. And so, as with any democracy, the quality of information that a voting population has is going to determine the quality of politicians they elect, and the agendas that are moved forward in government. Which is how we’ve arrived at a Donald Trump presidency and Republican Party that is so woefully disconnected from reality — to a degree that is clearly harmful to the well-being of citizens in the U.S. and around the globe.
And this is what Reagan’s revoking the Fairness Doctrine and blocking its revision by Congress has gifted to the American people and the world.

Lastly, in addition to helping neoliberal propaganda efforts, ending any application or evolution of the Fairness Doctrine has also helped even more nefarious efforts — such as the “active measures” of Russian intelligence — to distort public information and perception as well. It is more than a little ironic that Ronald Reagan, champion of anti-Soviet rhetoric and disruption of the Soviet Union itself, was single-handedly responsible for the ability of an ex-KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, to directly manipulate the American public today. See the link below for more on that.

And this, I firmly believe, is why the Fairness Doctrine needs to be reconstituted — not as an elective FCC policy applied only to broadcast media, but as the law of the land applied to ALL media, including the Web and social media.

Lastly, here are some resources that I would recommend to more thoroughly understand and navigate these issues:

L7 Neoliberalism (covers neoliberal propaganda efforts and agendas)

L7 Opposition (covers Russia’s “active measures”)

Media Bias/Fact Check - Search and Learn the Bias of News Media (great resource for checking media bias and accuracy)



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