In the ‘90s I had a very passionate Professor named David Hawkins who taught my Broadcast History 101 class. During one memorable lecture, he told us that the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 was the single most destructive act of de-regulation ever committed against our democracy. He told us bright-eyed young journalists, editors, writers and presenters that we would some day face a very different world professionally than the one we had signed up for. It took a few years for this to materialize, but ultimately Professor Hawkins was right. RIP.
The Fairness Doctrine was implemented by the United States Federal Communications Commission in 1949. It required all licensed broadcasters (including radio) present all issues considered to be of public importance, i.e. Presidential races, be presented in a manner that was honest, and equitable to all sides of a debate, with all points of view being represented. Those broadcasters who failed to do so were at risk of losing their license. WWII was fresh on the minds of both regulators and the public, who all understood clearly how Hitler and Goebbels had manipulated Germany’s media to their advantage. For many years, this rule helped the U.S. to avoid a similar situation developing at the dawn of the advent of a little thing called Television.
Just imagine it. To be able to turn on your TV or Radio and have actual facts presented and different points of view all in one place! Rather than some truths, many half-truths and opinions presented as facts, all from one side of the aisle depending on what station you’re tuned in to.
The people who argued against the doctrine (people like Rupert Murdoch) referred to the doctrine as “the thought police” and believed that it “restricted the journalistic freedom of broadcasters.” (1). Because as Stephen Colbert once noted “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
It’s funny how those who argue the loudest that their freedoms are being hindered are usually the ones who inevitably remove everyone elses. But they had Ronald Regan’s ear and the act was eliminated in 1987.
In years since, we have seen the rise of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Fox News and MSNBC. In 2011, all language even referencing the doctrine was removed. The final nail in the coffin of responsible un-biased journalism.
Now, here we are with a Trump/Pence administration set to take over the country. Many are decrying the agendas of the different so-called news outlets. Outlets that have become sad shadows of their former selves. Even more are criticizing the lack of oversight on the publishing of false information on Social Media. But nobody is advocating a return of industry regulation, despite all signs to the obvious.
Re-instatement won’t work. Technology is changing too fast for that. What we need are new modern regulations that include current and future social media platforms and take into the consideration the 24-hour news cycle, which did not exist when the original rules were written. Perhaps then we can return to the discourse of reason, facts, calm debate and respect for opposing viewpoints. Perhaps then we can close the gap between “them” and “us” and realize we’re all in this together. Perhaps then we can avoid political and economic shitstorms like the one we’re heading into.
Oh, wait…that’s not profitable. Sorry! I’ll return you to your regularly scheduled bullshit now.