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Content Regulation: The Fairness Doctrine

The original rationale for federal regulation of telecommunications was grounded in the finite num-ber of frequencies on which to broadcast. Many Americans worried that if Congress did not exercise its power over interstate commerce to fairly allocate the available frequencies to licensees who would serve the public interest, then only the richest members of society would own television broadcast rights and television programming would become one-dimensional, biased, or slanted. Only by guaranteeing a place on television for differing opinions, some Americans contended, would the truth emerge in the marketplace of ideas. These concerns manifested themselves in the fairness doctrine.

First fully articulated in 1949, the fairness doctrine had two parts: it required broadcasters to (1) cover vital controversial issues in the community; and (2) provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting points of view. Violation of the doctrine could result in a broadcaster losing its license. Not surprisingly, licensees grew reluctant to cover controversial stories out of fear of being punished for not adequately presenting opposing views. First Amendment advocates decried the fairness doctrine as chilling legitimate speech. The doctrine came under further scrutiny in the 1980s when the explosion of cable television stations dramatically expanded the number of media outlets available.

In 1987 the FCC abolished the fairness doctrine by a 4-0 vote, concluding that the free market and not the federal government is the best regulator of news content on television. Individual media outlets compete with each other for viewers, the FCC said, and this competition necessarily involves establishing the accuracy, credibility, reliability, and thoroughness of each story that is broadcast. Over time the public weeds out news providers that prove to be inaccurate, unreliable, one-sided, or incredible.

Inside Content Regulation: The Fairness Doctrine