The Fairness Doctrine


The easiest way to identify a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian is to mention Fox News on social media. It’s like reciting an ancient Gaelic incantation that makes the banshees rise from the swamp and scream their lamentations at the top of their voices. “Baaaaaan themmmmmm!” “The FCC should revoooooooke their license!” “Ruuuuuuuuupert!” And then they all get naked, hold hands around the sacrificial altar and say the magic words: Fairness Doctrine!

Now, these people only know two things about the Doctrine. One, it had the word “Fairness” in the title so it had to be, you know, “fair.” And two, Ronald Reagan was President when it was ditched and he was evil so it had to be good.

In their minds, the FCC was watching every television show and listening to every radio broadcast to make sure that everything was “fair” and that all points of view were being presented on every issue. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

When promulgated in the late 1940s, the intent of the regulation was to make sure that broadcasters devoted a certain amount of time on their schedules to discuss local issues of a controversial nature in their communities. While regulators probably envisioned prime time round tables on zoning regulations with eminent voices from government and academia, what they got was a Sunday morning ghetto of bad talk shows with horrible sets and absolutely no audience.

It also had the effect of stripping broadcasters of their First Amendment rights to editorialize. If a public figure was perceived to be a raving lunatic, a crackpot, or reprobate a broadcaster would never say it because for every minute you talked about them it would be logged as a “personal attack” and subject to equal time for said lunatic. When you make it easier to say nothing then nothing gets said, including a bunch of stuff that absolutely needs to be said. So broadcasters who did editorials on their newscasts would reserve their holy righteousness to anti-litter campaigns, supporting charities and other banalities.

The Fairness Cult would be appalled by the truth. The FCC (and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission) has very rarely ever pursued broadcasters for content. License revocation has been reserved primarily for technical violations and financial malfeasance, the latter being at the heart of the downfall of RKO General.

The two most famous cases of license revocation center around a quack doctor and the other where a station owner simply told the FCC to pound sand.

The doctor, John R. Brinkley of Kansas, was both a charlatan and a radio pioneer. He had several years of legitimate medical training but ended up with a degree from a diploma mill. His entire career as a medical flimflam artist is too long to recount here, but suffice it to say that he became famous as the “goat gland doctor” who inserted goat testicles into the scrotal sacks of men with the promise of restoring their sexual virility, helping to turn one into “the ram that am with every lamb!” One of his patients actually got his wife pregnant and Brinkley found the new medium of radio the ideal place to promote his new procedure and launched his own station, KFKB in Kansas City. It would take years for both the FRC and the state medical board to catch up to him and when they did he hightailed to Mexico where he helped pioneer the “border blaster” of radio stations saturating the US airwaves with unbelievably high-powered radio signals beyond the reach of Washington authorities.

The one directly related to the Fairness Doctrine was Red Lion Broadcasting v FCC. But first, a little more background about the political use of the Doctrine. In 1963 the Kennedy Administration was concerned that right-leaning radio stations were endangering Kennedy’s re-election chances. Under the direction of political operative Kenneth O’Donnell and former NY Times reporter, Wayne Phillips, the White House, and the DNC created a monitoring program that led to hundreds of complaints to the FCC and free airtime for the Democrats. The real purpose, they admitted years later, was to harass the station owners and bully them into silence.

Then radio station WGCB in Red Lion, PA had a 15-minute program called “Christian Crusade” and on November 27, 1964 the Rev. Billy James Hargis took to task the author of an anti-Barry Goldwater book and blamed him for LBJ’s landslide victory and claimed that the author, Fred J. Cook, was a communist. The DNC bankrolled both Cook’s book and the Red Lion challenge all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1969 the court held for Cook. The rationale was that radio frequencies were scarce and that broadcasters held a monopoly with their licenses. While the license of Red Lion was not challenged, the ruling did allow the FCC to take the license of another Pennsylvania radio station, WXUR.

Ironically, station owners became so gun shy that they bent over backwards to give the new President, Richard Nixon, as much free airtime as he wanted. It wasn’t until Watergate that broadcasters became emboldened to take on Nixon and his administration.

If the rise of cable television in the 1980s made the scarcity argument obsolete, the internet has embalmed it, cremated it, and buried it for good measure.

When Rupert Murdoch bought controlling interest in DirecTV in 2003, opponents of the deal feared that he would ditch rivals MSNBC and CNN in favor of Fox News Channel. As a condition of the purchase the DOJ demanded guaranteed access to rival networks. Now, as the activists implore Comcast and AT&T to ditch FNC they are blissfully unaware or conveniently ignoring the fact that it was their own earlier Fox paranoia that now prevents them from getting what they want. Nor do they realize that the scarcity argument of Red Lion has never applied to either networks or cable operators since they don’t use spectrum.

Still, how could anything called “The Fairness Doctrine” be anything but good? Simple, when it’s reimagined in the image of Joseph Stalin. Let the banshees wail.

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There are 8 comments.

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  1. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell

    Thanks for the historical background, @ejhill.

    • #1
  2. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster

    Interesting and educational.

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens

    Educational and telling. 

    The Left cannot abide by other voices. 

    • #3
  4. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks

    Brinkley was a fascinating case, if anyone wants to read more. What a character. 

    I came into AM radio at the end of the Fairness doctrine, or at least the end of its lingering effect. AM radio was dishwater 24/7. Afterwards? Fire and fun.

    • #4
  5. EJHill Podcaster

    James Lileks: I came into AM radio at the end of the Fairness doctrine, or at least the end of its lingering effect.

    Same for me, only I was in TV. One of my first jobs was directing the deathly Sunday morning public affairs shows. And since I was also hired because of my ability to read copy, I also remember recording the sign-off cart that included a call that anyone who wanted to know if we were broadcasting “in the public interest” could stop by the station during business hours and ask to see our “public file.” Thank God I got out of local television.

    • #5
  6. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks

    We used to run a guy named Bruce Williams, who gave advice. You could hear him shuffling the cards as he played solitaire, and occasionally reaching into a bag of potato chips. Also Michael Jackson, not the singer or beer expert, but a Brit who talked about . . . things. 

    Then came Rush, and those guys were like ladyfinger firecrackers next to a 8’/55. 

    • #6
  7. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos

    The left just wants to add the FCC to the zombie brigades who enforce the “community guidelines” on GTwitBook.  

    The obsession with FoxNews reflects a (unconscious?) realization that MSNBC and CNN merely echo the zeitgeist already fully present in MSM, filtered social media and academia but the mere existence of a contrary point of view in any media format contradicts the pretense of an ‘end of history’, ‘reality-based, ‘science-loving’, ‘inclusive’ sensibility that requires uniform acceptance to be valid. Worse, the uniqueness of Rush or FoxNews provides some power by virtue of novelty.

    In this view, conservatism has no roots, depth or the validation of experience. It is merely a malignant emotional state fomented by fake news and misinformation.

    The biggest cause of the decay of American political discourse is that the left feels that it should never be required to leave the plane of righteousness and stoop to the level of mere secular debate with the trogs. It is noteworthy that the generation that sacrificed much to end slavery, the generation that defeated Hitler and the generation crushed out the legacy of Jim Crow all regarded debate and discourse to be vital. And now a generation with a vastly smaller claim to self-righteousness feels they are too righteous to be subjected to the pain of disagreement.


    • #7
  8. JimGoneWild Coolidge

    Love it.

    • #8
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