The Fairness Doctrine

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The Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine

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The concept of fairness is very difficult to define in a society where people have different ideas on what fairness means. For some people, fairness means having their way or nothing else, and for others, fairness means meeting others with opposing views in the middle. Because of such differences in ideas, it is challenging to develop one standard of fairness to apply to an entire country such as the United States. During these times of heightened anxiety due to politics, the pandemic, unemployment, and other problems, people rely on the media to give them pertinent information that affects their lives. Although some media outlets try to be balanced and nonpartisan in their reporting, the reality is that the majority have some kind of partisan leaning. This partial leaning situation leads audiences to tune in to the outlets that are more likely to support their views and criticize those that lean towards the other side. Under the fairness doctrine, such a situation would be easily rectified as the doctrine required licensed media outlets to give balanced reporting on important matters. Although the Federal Communications Commission’s fairness doctrine was abolished in 1987, it served as a regulatory tool to ensure fair and balanced reporting, reducing extremism and giving all parties a chance to respond to public views and attacks.

Whenever a person turns on the television, especially in these current times, they are bombarded by all types of information based on which channel they watch. A right-leaning channel will say that the coronavirus pandemic has been blown out of proportion, the economy is doing great, and the President is on track to win the election. On the other hand, a left-leaning channel will focus on flare-ups of Covid-19 cases in many parts of the country, the millions of people who have lost their jobs, and the polls predicting Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. With all this confusing information, who is telling the truth? Is there a way for Americans to find out both sides of the debate presented without bias? This is where the fairness doctrine would step in and save the American people.

The Fairness Doctrine came into being in 1947 as a policy under the Federal Communications Commission. Under the doctrine, licensed radio and television outlets were required to ensure balanced and fair coverage of issues affecting their community. One way of doing this was to devote equal airtime to differing or opposing points of view (Ruane 2009). An example of how to apply the fairness doctrine in the current time would be for a television broadcaster to invite two experts to discuss the state of the economy. The two would debate the issue based on their opinions and the facts available, and the viewers would make their judgments based on the balanced reports from both sides. However, the fairness doctrine was abolished in 1987 as the Reagan government pursued deregulation, and people could access more information, unlike earlier before.

The first reason why the fairness doctrine was useful is that it reduced extremism in the information presented by TV and radio broadcasters. Watching some of the news outlets today, one is shocked by the sheer extremism and disregard for facts that some media outlets show. Such kinds of extremism in news coverage has actually led to acts of violence and death. An excellent example of this is the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans so far. As the pandemic spread worldwide in the early months of 2020, scientists warned of the significant effects and proposed some suggestions on how to handle it. However, some media outlets labeled the virus a hoax and painted the scientists as alarmists wanting to destroy the American way of life. Such coverage led to riots resisting lockdown and safety measures instituted at various levels, effectively killing tens of thousands of people. Had the fairness doctrine been in place, such outlets would have been forced to cover the other side of the argument showing the virus as a real threat. In such a case, viewers would have been more likely to pay some heed to the virus as a threat, averting violence, and death.

The fairness doctrine allows people to receive balanced and fair reports on controversial issues, which helps them become more informed and make informed decisions. One of the reasons why the FCC instituted the fairness doctrine is to make information more accessible, especially those who had limited sources of information (Lefevre-Gonzalez 2013). All that has changed today with people accessing information through multiple sources such as television, radio, social media, streaming services, blogs, online journals, among many others. Despite the excess information available, the issue of fairness is mostly absent. Although there are some reliable outlets, many news sources still present unverified, dangerous information that cannot be regulated. The fairness doctrine would require traditional news broadcasters such as news channels to cover both sides of controversial issues. People still rely on outlets to make a judgment. So the argument that information being more accessible makes the fairness doctrine irrelevant is false. Many people watch their favorite news channel as their primary source of information, and balanced coverage would make for a better-informed population, basing their judgment on the merits of an issue.

One of the basic tenets of the fairness doctrine was giving opposing viewpoints equal airtime, which allowed parties to respond to attacks, false information, and any other ideas attributed to them (Honig 2019). Such a doctrine would be extremely valuable in current times. Today, it is very common to turn on a news program and find a political candidate attacking their opponents. Most of these candidates make outrageous claims against others, yet the accused party is rarely given a chance to respond to the accusations. For example, a right-leaning channel would host a candidate accusing their liberal counterpart of planning to defund the police once they are elected. Conservative voters would obviously be appalled at this and promise to never vote for the other candidate. Consider a situation where the news program would give both candidates twenty minutes to discuss their reform ideas regarding the police, and each candidate could respond to accusations against them. The fairness doctrine would be an effective way to stop misinformation and mudslinging campaigns (Honig 2019) because voters would hear first-hand from both parties.

In summary, the fairness doctrine was an excellent policy created to ensure fairness and balance in reporting information by broadcasters. When the principle was in place, there were few problems because of the relatively few numbers of licensed broadcasters; therefore, enforcement was relatively easy. However, as time has gone by, the First Amendment has taken center stage, and there have been many fights for free speech. The fairness doctrine was seen as one way of stifling free speech; therefore, it was abolished. Looking back, the fairness doctrine would be useful in current times to eliminate extremism, make viewers more informed, and eliminate misinformation and mudslinging campaigns. However, implementing the fairness doctrine would be much more difficult, given the fact that technology has made it very easy for any individual to put out unverified, potentially dangerous information. In an ideal world, the fairness doctrine would work, but in such polarized times, the doctrine would stand no chance of success despite its many advantages.

References

Honig, J. A. S. (2019). Public Policies on Broadcast and the Fairness Doctrine: History, Effects, and Implications for the Future. Public Policy and Administration Review, 7(1), 1-6.

Lefevre-Gonzalez, C. (2013). Restoring historical understandings of the ‘public interest’standard of American broadcasting: an exploration of the Fairness Doctrine. International Journal of Communication, 7, 21.

Ruane, K. A. (2009). Fairness doctrine: History and constitutional issues.”. J. Curr. Issues Crime Law Law Enforc, 2(1), 75-89.

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