Linda Schuyler Horning: Bring back Fairness Doctrine
In the year of my birth, 1949, broadcasting networks began providing not only adequate coverage of public issues, but ensured that it also fairly represented opposing points of view.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Editorializing Report held for the first time that broadcasters had a duty to a democratic society to expose them to both sides of an issue. The report laid the foundation for what became known as the Fairness Doctrine.
As hard as it is to imagine today, radio was the main source of mass media in the early and middle part of the last century. Just as we struggle with bandwidth today, radio stations had to compete for a limited space on the airwaves. This “scarcity rationale” seemed to justify government enforcement of public interest rules on those who received exclusive licenses.
A valid concern also arose from the dependency of radio stations on their advertisers, and the danger those commercial concerns posed for influencing editorial content.
Many of us grew up trusting broadcast news programs and respecting their content as verified by several sources. Walter Cronkite, who anchored the evening news on CBS for 19 years from 1962 to 1981, became known as “the most trusted man in America.“
Over the years, this level of deference began to pose a threat to both Democratic and Republican administrations, who wanted to promote their own agenda. Richard Nixon found journalists so troublesome that he began referring to journalists as “the media,” a term many considered to be manipulative and rude.
In 1987, the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by a 4-0 vote. Congress opposed the decision, trying to set the doctrine permanently into law, but the proposed legislation was vetoed by Ronald Reagan, and another attempt stopped in 1991, when George H.W. Bush threatened a veto.
In addition, new technology by 1994 made radio frequencies so numerous that the Supreme Court ruled that the scarcity rationale no longer applied to the cable industry. They did, however, keep it in place for broadcasters.
Enter Rush Limbaugh and syndicated talk radio, which peaked in the 1990s to form political opinions for 44 percent of Americans. The audience was largely white, male, Republican, and financially well off. They distrusted the mainstream media, which they saw as biased toward liberalism. Rants and call-in shows became wildly popular.
The Fox News channel, created by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, also appealed to conservative audiences. Murdoch hired former Republican media consultant Roger Ailes as his founding CEO, and two years after the scarcity rationale no longer applied to cable news, Fox News launched its assault on American democracy.
I offer this timeline in an effort to explain how we came from a nation in relative unity to this place of stark division. It didn’t happen overnight, but evolved over several decades. The FCC used to think it had a duty to a democratic society, but now exposure to both sides of an issue is thought to limit free speech. This attitude is not only wrong, but dangerous.
In the two weeks following the 2020 election, Fox News cast doubt or pushed conspiracy theories about the result nearly 800 times. Truth defenders have tried to fight back by boycotting Fox News advertisers, but those efforts haven’t had the impact they hoped.
Donald Trump is on record as lying to or misleading the American people 30,573 times over the four years he worked in the oval office. In my opinion, bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would not be enough to stem the tide of falsehood. We also need to establish a truth commission.
According to The Washington Post, a truth commission is “a temporary, government-sponsored body that investigates political violence.“ Political violence is perpetrated by people or governments in order to achieve political goals. It can be used by non-state actors against a state (rebellion, rioting, treason or coup d’etat). Inaction on the part of a government can also be characterized as a form of political violence, such as refusing to alleviate a pandemic.
A 2019 bill to restore the Fairness Doctrine, H.R. 4401, died in the 116th Congress. It’s time to offer a new bill and get it through Congress while we can. Perhaps, in concert with a truth commission, it will restore trust in government and democracy, as well as the news and commentary that support it.
Linda Schuyler Horning lives in Nevada City.
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As a 20-year resident of our fine city of Grass Valley, I got a good giggle out of Christian Stewart’s commentary about opposition to mining from a recent emigrant and a rightly concerned community.