The doctrine that imposes affirmative responsibilities on a broadcaster to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints. In fulfilling its fairness doctrine obligations, a broadcaster must provide free time for the presentation of opposing views if a paid sponsor is unavailable and must initiate programming on public issues if no one else seeks to do so.
Between the 1940s and 1980s, federal regulators attempted to guarantee that the broadcasting industry would act fairly. The controversial policy adopted to further that attempt was called the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine was not a statute, but a set of rules and regulations that imposed controls on the content of the broadcasting media. It viewed radio and television as not merely industries but servants of the public interest. Enforced by the FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (FCC), the fairness doctrine had two main tenets: broadcasters had to cover controversial issues, and they had to carry contrasting viewpoints on such issues. Opponents of the doctrine, chiefly the media themselves, called it unconstitutional. Although it survived court challenges, the fairness doctrine was abolished in 1987 by deregulators in the FCC who deemed it outdated, misguided, and ultimately unfair. Its demise left responsibility for fairness entirely to the media.
The fairness doctrine grew out of early regulation of the radio industry. As the medium of radio expanded in the 1920s, its chaotic growth caused problems: for one, broadcasters often overlapped on each other's radio frequencies. In 1927, Congress imposed regulation with its passage of the Radio Act (47 U.S.C.A. § 81 et seq.). This landmark law established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), reestablished in 1934 as the Federal Communications Commission. Empowered to allocate frequencies among broadcasters, the FRC essentially decided who could broadcast, and its mandate to do so contained the seeds of the fairness doctrine. The commission was not only to divvy up the limited number of bands on the radio dial; Congress said it was to do so according to public "convenience, interest, or necessity. "Radio was seen as a kind of public trust: individual stations had to meet public expectations in return for access to the nation's airwaves.
In 1949, the first clear definition of the fairness doctrine emerged. The FCC said, in its Report on Editorializing, "[T]he public interest requires ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views, and the commission believes that the principle applies … to all discussion of issues of importance to the public." The doctrine had two parts: it required broadcasters (1) to cover vital controversial issues in the community and (2) to provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints. In time, additional rules were added. The so-called personal attack rule required broadcasters to allow opportunity for rebuttal to personal attacks made during the discussion of controversial issues. The "political editorializing" rule held that broadcasters who endorsed a candidate for political office had to give the candidate's opponent a reasonable opportunity to respond.
Enforcement was controversial. Complaints alleging violations of the fairness doctrine were to be filed with the FCC by individuals and organizations, such as political parties and unions. Upon review of the complaint, the FCC could take punitive action that included refusing to renew broadcasting licenses. Not surprisingly, radio and TV station owners resented this regulatory power. They grumbled that the print media never had to bear such burdens. The fairness doctrine, they argued, infringed upon their FIRST AMENDMENT rights. By the late 1960s, a First Amendment challenge reached the U.S. Supreme Court, in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, 89 S. Ct. 1794, 23 L. Ed. 2d 371 (1969). The Court upheld the constitutionality of the doctrine in a decision that only added to the controversy. The print and broadcast media were inherently different, it ruled. In the broadcast media, the Court said, "it is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount… it is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here."
Although the fairness doctrine remained in effect for almost two more decades following Red Lion, the 1980s saw its abolishment. Anti-regulatory fervor in the administration of President RONALD REAGAN brought about its end. The administration, which staffed the FCC with its appointees, favored little or no restrictions on the broadcast industry. In its 1985 Fairness Report (102 F.C.C.2d 145), the FCC announced that the doctrine hurt the public interest and violated the First Amendment. Moreover, technology had changed: with the advent of multiple channels on CABLE TELEVISION, no longer could broadcasting be seen as a limited resource. Two years later, in August 1987, the commission abolished the doctrine by a 4–0 vote, intending to extend to radio and television the same First Amendment protections guaranteed to the print media. Congress had tried to stop the FCC from killing the fairness doctrine. Two months earlier, it had sent President Reagan the Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987 (S. 742, 100th Cong., 1st Sess. ), which would have codified the doctrine in federal law. The president vetoed it.
President Reagan's VETO of the 1987 congressional bill to establish the fairness doctrine as law did not end the controversy, however. Even into the mid-1990s, proponents continued to call for its reinstatement.