The Fairness Doctrine: A Phantom Issue

Pssst. Want to make some easy money?

Here’s a can’t miss tip.

Start a web site to raise money to fight the return of the Fairness Doctrine.

What’s the Fairness Doctrine, you ask? It was a requirement that TV and radio and networks give equal time to both sides in arguments over public policy. During the Reagan era the Fairness Doctrine was repealed to appease broadcasters who claimed that it imposed an onerous burden on them.

And why is raising money to fight its return easy money? Because there is no fight. The President, the leadership of Congress and the chairman of the FCC all have signaled they have no intention of adding the Fairness Doctrine to their already full menu of difficult political battles.

That’s the reality. But over in the black=white world of right wing politics, the wires are burning hot with fears that there’s a secret plan to reimpose (shudder) fairness to broadcasting. It’s become one of the political right’s worst nightmares.

Just type “Fairness Doctrine” into your Google search box and see what comes up. It’s a vast wonderland of misinformation and conspiratorial theories, consistent with the worldview that President Obama and his allies are mortal threats to the American way of life.

Actually, I’m disappointed that the administration isn’t making an issue of the Fairness Doctrine. I wish there were a fight. There’s a certain charm to the word, “fairness.” The doctrine it applied to was aptly named.

The airwaves are, and have been since their development, the property of the public. We, the public, let commercial and public vendors use those airwaves under certain terms and conditions. One of those conditions (for more than half a century) used to be that if one side of a public debate is given time to make its case the other side should be given an equal amount of time.

That condition makes a lot of sense because radio and TV air time is finite. In print you can add more pages. Can’t do that in broadcast because no matter how hard we try there’s still only going to be 7 days and 24 hours. Time is limited. Time when most people watch and listen is even more limited. If one side dominates an argument on broadcast there’s slim chance for the other side to mount an argument equal to it.

And that’s pretty much what’s happened since the Fairness Doctrine went away in 1987. What used to be reasonably balanced call in shows have morphed into multi-hour screeds by Rush Limbaugh and his legion of imitators. And since they are awfully good at their craft, political entertainment, they draw big audiences and lots of advertising. In the process they have warped the national debate on an endless number of vital issues, with scant opportunity for the other side to respond to the same audiences.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was in Washington, D.C. the other day and blamed repeal of the Fairness Doctrine for creating a climate that enabled passage of Arizona’s new immigration law, the law that makes all Hispanic looking people in the state seem guilty of something unless they can prove their innocence.

Gordon’s comments fell on deaf ears in Washington, but for sure raised a lot of money for those battling the phantom of the Fairness Doctrine. Gordon’s words were seen as an outcropping of the “secret plan” by the administration to return fairness to the airwaves. And we can’t have that.

I should add here that since the administration is doing zilch to restore the Fairness Doctrine, the political right is focusing on what they see as its evil twin, internet neutrality. The net neutrality fight is a real fight, one the administration is on record supporting—–and for the sake of everyone who wants to keep internet news and information channels relatively free—had better win.

Here’s what’s at stake. The big money guys who currently control the flow of most internet traffic want to charge some sites more than others to use the internet. This is akin to, but not exactly like, the way cable operators pick and choose which channels will show up on their systems. If they succeed, some very greedy traffic cops will be inserted at strategic points on the information superhighway. That can’t be good for anyone except those who profit from it.

The anti-net-neutrality campaign is working hard to wrap the Fairness Doctrine argument around itself. And the easy marks on the right are buying in to that argument.

So that’s why I suggest that raising money to fight the Fairness Doctrine is such easy money. There’s a lot of it out there in the hands of gullible people who are willing to contribute to fight both fairness and neutrality.

Pickins’ hardly come any easier than that.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at


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