Restore the Fairness Doctrine

[Freeport Journal-Standard editorial]

The issue: Using the public airwaves to push one-sided “news”
Our view: Those who rent public property have an obligation to present all sides.

With another big-money presidential campaign starting to heat up and the public airwaves increasingly polluted with vitriol, half-truth and innuendo masquerading as news, it's time for the nation to consider re-instating The Fairness Doctrine. The doctrine was enforced throughout the entire history of the Federal Communications Commission, and its precursor agency, the Federal Radio Commission, until 1987, when Reagan administration officials led the charge to repeal it. Under the doctrine, the FCC required American broadcasters - whose signals are carried over licensed and regulated public airwaves - to present issues of public controversy in a balanced manner.

The latest example of the damage done by repeal of the Fairness Doctrine comes from the Web site of Insight Magazine, a conservative publication affiliated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. The “story,” now widely discredited, asserted that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a presidential candidate, had spent time in Islamic schools as a young boy in Indonesia.

And while few read Insight, the lie quickly spread to the talk radio instigators, who repeated it ad nauseam, with no equal time given to opposing views, much less the truth. People hear it on the radio, and assume it is the truth. And that's the idea - by recycling “stories” again and again over the public airwaves, the lie becomes truth to millions who still assume that what they hear on the radio is as balanced as any news broadcast.

And even if the false story is retracted, few of those exposed to the original lie ever here about the reversal, the correction all but ignored by those who repeated the story but were not its original “source.”

Repeal of the doctrine followed a 1969 court decision, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, that declared the regulations unconstitutional when applied to newspapers. But the Court ruled that radio stations must still present balanced information because the broadcast spectrum belongs to the people. Now, however, we live in an age where obscure publications, many of them online, seem to exist primarily to push a public view -- not on their own small audiences - but onto the public airwaves, providing endless fodder to the radio talkers and Fox News, which pushed the Obama story relentlessly, just as they have other “anonymous” Insight magazine reportage.

The Fairness Doctrine would reign in not only the partisan noise machine - who could forget the “Stolen Honor” debacle or ABC's “The Path to 9/11” - but the left-wing fringe as well, such as Air America, which to those who have heard it is booth looney and boring.

There are other reasons that the doctrine is needed to restore civility and honesty to public debate, chief among them the consolidation of the nation's media outlets into the hands of a few powerful corporations, who have profited handsomely from deregulation, government contracts and one-party rule.

Having grown up with the doctrine firmly in place, millions, especially in rural areas, still think what they hear on the radio is Gospel truth - even when the “sources” are unnamed, the reporting weak, the substance limited to name-calling and innuendo.

Pushing an obviously political or business agenda under the banner of “news” is one thing - but using the public airwaves to do it is unfair and un-American.

article originally published at http://www.journalstandard.com/articles/2007/01/30/opinion/opinion90.txt.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey