The (Un)fairness Doctrine

COMMENTARY Government Regulation

The (Un)fairness Doctrine

Nov 28th, 2007 3 min read

Visiting Fellow

Who should decide what you hear over the radio and on TV? You? Or policymakers in Washington?

If freedom of speech appeals to you -- if you think we need robust debate to keep democracy alive and well -- the answer should be clear.

Unfortunately, it's not so clear to certain liberal lawmakers. The rest of us hear, say, Rush Limbaugh on our lunch hours and tune into Bill O'Reilly in the evening and enjoy the lively give-and-take that erupts over the issues of the day. But those liberals aren't so happy. They don't like it when Rush or Bill (or Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and other noteworthy and entertaining pundits) shines a spotlight on our elected leaders and all their foibles.

That's why liberals are dusting off the so-called "Fairness Doctrine."

The Fairness Doctrine, despite its name, gives Americans a raw deal. The Federal Communications Commission created it in 1949 to require broadcasters to present both sides of any controversial issue that they touched on. Sounds ... well, fair, right? Except for two major problems.

One is practical -- it makes for boring radio and TV. Why? Because broadcasters responded to the Fairness Doctrine predictably: Realizing that it would be extraordinarily difficult to ensure that each issue was treated in perfect balance, they opted in large measure to steer clear of controversial topics. After all, there's only one way to guarantee that no one is offended by what you say ... and that's to say nothing.

The other problem is a little something known as the First Amendment. Where, pray tell, is it written in the Constitution that we must exercise our free speech in a "balanced" way? Sorry, but the kind of robust debate that our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution -- indeed, the kind of debate that led to the founding of this nation -- can't be hemmed in with parliamentary demands that we carefully include "the other side" every time we speak. Like it or not, democracy's messy.

So the FCC, in 1985, finally began to overturn the Fairness Doctrine, and President Reagan vetoed every attempt to bring it back. It didn't take long for the phenomenon of talk radio -- as we know it today -- to arise. "When Rush Limbaugh began his career," writes Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., in the latest issue of American Legion magazine, "there were 125 talk-radio stations. Today there are 2,000." And no, they're not all conservative. "While Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other conservative giants dominate the national syndicated market," Pence adds, "many moderate and liberal programs succeed admirably at the local level."

Regardless, many politicians don't like talk radio and its televised equivalent. After all, Americans who listen to pundits with strong opinions tend to become, gee, informed about the issues of the day. Instead of minding their own business, they learn things. Then they call and write their representatives in Washington, demanding action. We can't have that!

Of course, the case against an unregulated marketplace of ideas is so flimsy, it requires deception. Consider the liberal attack on Rush Limbaugh over his "phony soldiers" remark. Rush, in fact, had made a perfectly legitimate argument. If a soldier who had been kicked out of boot camp, then claimed to have witnessed fellow soldiers committing atrocities in Iraq isn't a "phony," who is? But the truth didn't matter to many liberals. They tried to accuse Rush, of all people, of being anti-patriotic! It was so absurd, the charge didn't stick. But that didn't stop liberal lawmakers from threatening to revive the Fairness Doctrine.

That's why Pence has introduced the "Broadcaster Freedom Act" -- to ensure that no future president can regulate the airwaves of America without an act of Congress. "America is a nation of freedom and strong opinion," he says. "Our government must not be afraid to entrust our good people with all the facts and opinions necessary to make choices as an informed electorate. That is what democracy is all about."

It's not just Republicans who think so. As President John F. Kennedy once said, "We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."

So let's ask those who champion the Fairness Doctrine: What are you afraid of?

Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That's Gone Stark Raving Mad" and runs the Web site