The Fairness Doctrine Fear Machine

Do you hear that rumbling? That’s the engines of the “Fairness Doctrine Fear Machine” spinning into high gear, again. The most recent round of misguided fear mongering comes from Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck at Fox News. After a speech from Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps, the pair are making a lot of noise about a new “government takeover of the media.” Unfortunately, it seems like Rep. Joe Barton is drinking their kool-aid. He just sent a letter to Commissioner Copps, asking him to – yet again – reassure lawmakers that he isn’t trying to revive the Fairness Doctrine.

It’s been a few months since anyone has brought up this bogeyman, so let’s recap the facts. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present contrasting views on controversial issues. It was struck down in 1987, and has never come close to being reinstated. The truth is that it didn’t work very well and was nearly unenforceable. President Barack Obama and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski have both publicly come out against any reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.

Last Thursday, Commissioner Copps gave a major speech at the Columbia Journalism School outlining an ambitious policy agenda to reboot America’s media for the digital age and to reform the FCC itself to make it more accountable to the American people. We wrote a more lengthy post about his speech, but here’s a quick summary: Copps called on the FCC to reinforce broadcasters’ obligations to serve the public interest in return for their free use of the public airwaves. He called this renewed commitment a “Public Values Test.” Much of the protests following his speech focused in on that phrase as a sign that Copps wants the government to dictate content.

After Copps’speech, O’Reilly aired two segments titled, “Is Obama Administration Ready to Intrude on Media?” and “Does the FCC Want to Control the Media?” that were light on facts and heavy on spin. Calling Copps’ proposal for the FCC to do its job “a disturbing development at the FCC,” O’Reilly promised, “This broadcast will fight any federal intrusion on the media unless of course they want to put Bill Moyers in jail.”

Echoing O’Reilly’s bluster, Rep. Barton followed up with a letter to Commissioner Copps asking him if he planned to try to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Copps has repeatedly said "The Fairness Doctrine is long gone and it’s not coming back." 

Unfortunately, the impact of this kind of rhetoric is to close down space for real dialogue at a time when we need more conversation about the health of our media. The bi-partisan Knight Commission has warned that many in our communities face becoming second class citizens of the digital age and have argued that “the time has come for new thinking and aggressive action to ensure the information opportunities of America’s people, the information health of its communities, and the information vitality of our democracy.”

It is time to have a reasoned discussion about whether broadcasters are living up to their end of the bargain and serving the public interest. Ensuring that broadcasters uphold their bargain to serve the public interest is exactly why Congress established the FCC. For years the FCC conducted vigorous reviews of stations’ use of the public airwaves, but over the years, Big Media lobbyists have succeeded in eroding that watchdog role. When the Fairness Doctrine Fear Machine cranks into high gear, the Big Media companies are the only ones who benefit. Let’s not let hyperbole drown out real debate.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good