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The Fairness Doctrine

The free exchange of ideas is essential to a democratic nation


One of the foundational principles of a democratic form of government is the idea that the free exchange of ideas is essential. A democratic nation, in other words, can’t long survive with an electorate that is kept in the dark, or has fallen victim to indoctrination rather than information.
That’s been one of the most consistent criticisms by conservatives of colleges and universities in the U.S., which they accuse (in some cases legitimately) of emphasizing liberal ideas over conservative ones, a development they fear is turning the country against conservative politicians and policies.
For most college students, of course, their exposure to political debate on campus is limited. For many, depending on their educational focus or the school they attend, it’s almost non-existent.
That, of course, is not the case with the public’s exposure to major media, which occurs daily for most and throughout their lifetimes. And many of those sources today are far more one-sided than a college campus.
It didn’t use to be this way. Back in 1949, then-President Harry Truman signed a bill that, for more than a generation, ensured that Americans were exposed to a wide range of political perspectives. It was known as the Fairness Doctrine, and it required that radio and the new medium of television provided equal time for political content. That meant an hour spent broadcasting conservative opinions had to be balanced with an hour of an alternative viewpoint. More often, it simply meant that a political talk show would include people of varying political perspectives, which gave the viewing public exposure not only to differing ideas but to the notion that intelligent and well-meaning people on varying sides of an issue could discuss and disagree more-or-less amiably. It gave food for thought, not for throwing.
The Fairness Doctrine grew out of the legitimate fear that wealthy corporations that controlled large numbers of radio and television stations could use their powerful megaphones to indoctrinate, rather than inform, the American public to the benefit of powerful interests.
At that time, the world had recently seen the power of propaganda, and how the Nazis used constant repetition of falsehoods to convince otherwise decent people to do monstrous things.
When President Reagan signed the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it greatly expanded the power of money in our politics and laid the groundwork for the political dysfunction we’re experiencing today.
According to the libertarian Cato Institute, which supported the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, the decision “enabled the rise of conservative-dominated talk radio with vast political consequences.” According to Cato, talk radio not only motivated voters to support far-right Republicans and their policies, it “created a coherent audience that could be targeted by conservative media entrepreneurs like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes,” who brought Fox News to Americans. “For good or ill,” concludes Cato, “the conservative movement would look dramatically different today if the Fairness Doctrine had not been repealed.”
Indeed, America would look much different. The rise of right-wing media was exactly the kind of development that the drafters of the Fairness Doctrine had hoped to avoid, because they feared media used as propaganda.
Its power was on display on Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands of mostly decent Americans, who had been lied to for weeks, stormed the Capitol building in the misguided belief that they were preventing the theft of a presidential election. This was only possible because so many, particularly on the right, have earnestly and intentionally isolated themselves from information or viewpoints that don’t conform to their own.
Can restoration of the Fairness Doctrine provide a solution? Probably not. That genie is out of the bottle. While federal regulation of broadcast media was possible because it was a licensing requirement for use of the public airwaves, it likely wouldn’t pass constitutional muster on cable, the internet, or social media which is where most people get their “news” today.
It is worth noting, however, that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine has divided Americans in profound ways. It’s split families, ended friendships, and made even our communities coarser places. We can no longer just disagree and go about our day. When the leading right-wing candidate for president refers to the opposing party as “vermin” and promises to “root them out” and speaks openly of executing a political opponent, it is no longer possible to deny the degree to which our nation has been fundamentally damaged. Such language would have been disqualifying for any presidential candidate in the past. Today, it is greeted by cheers from his followers.
This is not making America great again. It’s destroying America at its core. It’s allowed a major U.S. political party to be hijacked by extremists steeped in conspiracy theories, who have little ability or interest in governing. And it’s left America vulnerable to exactly the kind of dissembling demagogue that the founding fathers most feared.