Few observers seriously expected the Obama administration to revive the Fairness Doctrine, the Federal Communications Commission policy requiring broadcasters to evenhandedly present “conflicting views on controversial issues of public importance.” But it’s shocking to see Obama’s FCC chair shoot it in the head and then dance on its grave.
The rule, issued in 1949, underscored the principle that in a democracy citizens need access to a diversity of perspectives, and that the agenda-setting power of broadcasters can be abused. As the Supreme Court ruled in 1969: “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited market-place of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee.”
The Reagan administration effectively killed the Fairness Doctrine, chosing to stop enforcing it in 1987 in the wake of a court decision by future supreme court justice Antonin Scalia and the infamous Robert Bork that made its implementation discretionary. Congress voted to reinstate the doctrine with the force of law, but Reagan used his veto pen, a move that would clear the way for the rise of right-wing talk radio and Roger Ailes’ Fox News network.
Nonetheless, the rule remained on the books until this week President Obama’s FCC head Julius Genachowski formally killed it, announcing its death with all the enthusiasm of NewsCorp lobbyist:
“The elimination of the obsolete Fairness Doctrine regulations will remove an unnecessary distraction,” Genachowski said. “Striking this from our books ensures there can be no mistake that what has long been a dead letter remains dead. The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago. I am pleased we are removing these and other obsolete rules from our books.”
Just. Wow. It’s one thing to appease your right wing critics. It’s quite another to frame capitulation as triumph.
For another perspective, listen to former president Bill Clinton, in 2009, call for the return of the doctrine.