The Fairness Doctrine's Chilling History

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It's a policy that aims to promote balance and fairness on the airwaves, but the Fairness Doctrine, some say, does nothing but chill discussions of controversial issues. Politicians and broadcasters have been debating it for nearly 70 years.

The question is, does it offer balance to talk radio or stifle free speech? The debate started brewing in the 1940s. In 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was implemented. At the time the broadcast landscape looked much different.

Click play to watch more on the Fairness Doctrine's specter in Congress from FCC Commisioner Robert McDowell, following CBN News Washington Correspondent Jennifer Wishon's report.

Dr. Christopher Sterling, media professor at George Washington University says at that time.

"There were about a thousand AM stations, today there are five times that," he explained.  "There were probably seven or eight hundred FM stations. There are today probably ten times that. Television was just getting started, there were a couple to three dozen television stations in 1949. Today there are about 1,700."

Sterling worked at the Federal Communications Commission while the Fairness Doctrine was policy.

He says it was implemented when radio stations started airing editorials. Under the policy, stations that didn't offer opposing viewpoints on controversial issues lost their broadcast licenses. However, Sterling says it only happened once.

"It was a station outside Philadelphia, fittingly in a little community called Media, that lost its license, because it was run by somebody who had very strong religious views and didn't think any other views ought to be expressed on his station," Sterling said.

Broadcaster's Concern

The FCC abolished the doctrine in 1987, but many broadcasters worry it will be restored in some form or another. If that happens, they fear it will prevent radio talk show hosts from taking conservative or liberal positions without fear of government intervention. Groups like the National Religious Broadcasters work on preventing it from returning every day.

Dr. Frank Wright is the organization's president.

"If you let the government determine which speech is controversial and which isn't, worse than that, if you let the political appointees in any particular administration made those decisions you're just setting up a framework for abuse," he said.

Wright fears its abuse would require Christian stations to include viewpoints from other religions. Wright and other opponents say that isn't necessary now because now there are so many media outlets offering diverse voices. They also argue the Fairness Doctrine violates the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedom of speech and religion.

The "Unfair Doctrine'

In fact, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina calls the Fairness Doctrine the "unfair doctrine."

Last month DeMinto introduced an amendment to an unrelated bill that prohibits the return of the Fairness Doctrine. The amendment passed overwhelmingly. However, another amendment sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin passed as well.

Durbin's amendment says the FCC shall encourage and promote diversity in communications media ownership and ensure broadcast licenses are used in the public interest. Senate Democratic staff say the language simply reaffirms longstanding policies. However, Sen. DeMint calls it a back door attempt to smother conservative speech.

"For all we know, diversity of ownership for a Christian station would mean atheists, Muslims, people of all kinds of beliefs," the senator explained.  "It could be different sexual preferences. We just don't know."

Both amendments are now being considered by the House of Representatives.

Since the Fairness Doctrine was never a law, only a regulation, some of those who fear its return believe the real fight won't transpire on Capitol Hill, but rather in the halls of the Federal Communications Commission. However, many believe it is a dead issue that has no chance of returning.

"Interestingly enough, I think you'll find people on the right and the left who agree that government ought to stay out of content and therefore the Fairness Doctrine should not come back," Sterling said.

Still, groups like the National Religious Broadcasters are not taking chances. They spend lots of time and resources to ensure the Fairness Doctrine remains a part of broadcast history.

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CBN News
Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News Washington Correspondent

CBN News is a national/international, nonprofit news organization that provides programming by cable, satellite, and the Internet, 24-hours a day. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.