The story behind the fair theory – radio vision – when radio in America still delivered ordinary news

The story behind the fair theory – radio vision – when radio in America still delivered ordinary news

It's a shame that the radio and television news media in America are increasingly pushing themselves into the abyss. A few days ago, Nock published an excellent paper “Universe of MAGA Media“. But how did America get to this point? Time to look back at a little-known part of American media history: The Fairness Doctrine.

For the simple reason that the political system in Uncle Sam's country is as polarized as it is in the eyes of the American media, it is very challenging to follow the US presidential elections from our country. While Björn Soenens does a great job in our opinion, he certainly doesn't need to be a dedicated media source.

There is an interesting note Podcast “Red vs. Blue” With Mike Stark and Keith Curry. Stark is a former Republican turned Democrat and Curry is a former Democrat turned Republican. Both have been friends since their school days. They describe their podcast as “pressure, drama and uncivilized politics” – usually lasting 15 to 20 minutes – as they try to “at least find common ground on the issues that are dividing the country right now”.

As a format, this podcast actually harkens back to pioneer talk radio, when both sides of an 'issue' were always discussed. Or should be, because in America you had what was called the Fairness Doctrine from 1949 to 1987. It's interesting to look back at that era — in light of the current American media landscape.


You should definitely look at the fairness doctrine imposed by the FCC in 1949 in the eyes of the American media world. It was – as few still know – actually the successor to the Mayflower Act of 1941, which (the burgeoning) banned radio stations from discussing politics on their broadcasts. But by the end of the 1940s – when television began to gradually break through – audiovisual media had already become much larger and more professional. Politicians realized that 'good political debate' should be possible on radio or television.

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However, lawmakers worried that the three major networks—NBC, ABC, and CBS—might abuse their de facto monopoly over audiovisual media “to the prejudice of the public.” The Fairness Doctrine requires broadcast networks to always highlight conflicting views on “issues of public interest.” In 1954, the US Congress endorsed this policy. In the 1970s, the FCC even called this doctrine a “sine qua non” for granting license renewals.


Nevertheless, the theory was often used to make life difficult for political opponents on the radio. Indeed, in the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, it was a conscious strategy to constantly challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters through fairness doctrine. Smaller national radio stations—especially small ones—were threatened with procedures, fines, and tax audits in the hope that if they were friendly to Democrats, it would become too expensive for those stations to continue.

Admittedly, Kennedy was not entirely wrong. Independent radio owners, who saw their advertising revenues plummet with the strong rise of television, were willing to air the hundreds of new conservative-right programs that had emerged since the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, millions of Americans were listening weekly to (mainly religiously inspired) conservative broadcasters with names like Carl McIntyre, Billy James Hargis, and Clarence Mannion. Although significantly different, they shared opposition to liberalism and JFK and promoted conservative activism to a large extent. Which of course is totally inconsistent with the fair theory. You can read more about this particular chapter in the book 'The Radio Riot' by Van Paul Matsko.

First Amendment

The US Supreme Court has also supported the logic of the doctrine. In the case of 'Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC” In 1969, journalist Fred Cook sued a Pennsylvania Christian Crusade radio program after a radio host assaulted him. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that nothing in the “First Amendment” (i.e., “freedom of speech”) confers an exclusive right on a broadcast license, and affirmed that Cook had a right to respond live under the fairness doctrine. Waves in which he is active.

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This doctrine remained in place and was enforced until the Reagan administration. Former California actor Mark S. Fowler, a communications attorney who served on his presidential campaign staff in 1976 and 1980, was appointed FCC chairman. In 1985, Fowler issued a statement stating that the fairness doctrine harmed the public interest and “violated the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Also, the FCC released statistics showing that radio and TV stations are more likely to choose to broadcast less news than 'honest news', fearing fines, but that's simply a problem for the networks. Loss. Finally, the de facto monopoly of the big three broadcasters had already been broken by the rise of cable television. The latter are outside the Broadcasting Act and doctrine as they do not have a broadcasting licence.

During Reagan's second term, Fowler began to modify the application of the doctrine, which some in the US government believed was precisely what prevented journalists from fully criticizing Reagan's policies over the airwaves. In 1987, under new chairman Dennis Patrick, the FCC board voted 4-0 to repeal the fairness doctrine entirely.

The FCC vote was further opposed by members of Congress, who believed that the FCC had attempted to “override the will of Congress” and that the decision was “false, misleading, and unreasonable.” The decision set off political fireworks and caused much confusion and strained relations between Republicans and Democrats within Congress. In June 1987, Congress attempted to pre-empt the FCC decision by passing the Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987.

The bill passed, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill and Congress failed to muster enough votes to override the president's veto. Some elements of the Fairness Doctrine remained intact until the fall of 2000. Until then, you are not allowed to personally attack anyone on radio and television on his integrity, character, integrity or qualities. So copy.

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The fathers of fake news

As in the early 1960s, the collapse of the Fairness Doctrine led to another explosion of talk radio in the United States – mainly on the far right – with the most influential pioneer being a very conservative voice. Rush Limbaugh. The current generation influenced by him – names like Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Ben Shapiro or Sean Hannity, but the list is much longer – don't care much about what is true or not. The arrival of Fox News and all other encroachments followed on TV, although by definition they were never bound by the doctrine, as it only applied to broadcast licenses.

There are votes like yours on the progressive side Tom Hartman or recently deceased Joe Madison, although they are less noisy in the air. However, voices attempting to maintain a 'fair and objective' neutrality are rare. Michael Smergonish (with a daily radio show on SiriusXM and a weekly TV show on CNN) is one such person, but we don't know many others. Or they barely float to the surface

Since the 2000s, there has been a plan to reintroduce the theory every few years. Barack Obama also consistently hinted at it during his presidency, though such plans never gained political traction. In an era where the 'unregulated internet' has replaced the then 'scarcity of airwaves', this seems to make little sense from a democratic perspective. Regardless of the power of the big media companies, it's completely impossible for the FCC to try to implement all this in the current multimedia landscape.


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