Beware of the ‘Fairness Doctrine’


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There are ominous signs that certain forces on the left are gearing up for a new attempt to impose a “fairness doctrine” on American television and radio commentary.

Incredible as it may sound in retrospect, there actually was a so-called “Fairness Doctrine” in force in the United States from 1949 to 1987. Its ostensible purpose was to compel radio and TV stations to broadcast statements of opinion that “balanced” those being expressed voluntarily. Since a substantial majority of the statements being broadcast voluntarily were more or less conservative, the effect was to force broadcasters to air comparable programs expressing liberal sentiments.

If that strikes you as a violation of the First Amendment, go to the head of the class. It is, of course, exactly that — as Congress recognized in 1987, when it eliminated it. At the time, even powerful liberal voices endorsed its demise. A Washington Post editorial of June 24, 1987, put it this way: “The truth is … that there is no ‘fairness’ whatever in the ‘fairness’ doctrine. On the contrary, it is a chilling federal attempt to compel some undefined ‘balance’ of what ideas radio and television new programs are to include. … The ‘fairness doctrine’ undercuts free, independent, sound and responsive journalism — substituting governmental dictates. That is deceptive, dangerous and, in a democracy, repulsive.”

But not, in the opinion of some liberals, as repulsive as the relatively small number of liberal opinions being expressed. So now some of them seem to be getting ready to readjust the situation to make it more to their liking.

Thus, last year Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, told Fox News Sunday that she was “looking at” a new Fairness Doctrine. Talk radio, she complained, “tends to be one-sided. It’s explosive. It pushes people to, I think, extreme views without a lot of information.” Apparently, she doesn’t want them to hold such views without first getting a heavy dose of what she regards as the correct information.

And on Election Day this month, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argued that people who oppose the Fairness Doctrine “want the FCC to limit pornography on the air,” and are therefore inconsistent. “You can’t say ‘government hands off in one area’ to a commercial enterprise, but you’re allowed to intervene in another. That’s not consistent.” To Schumer, if you are willing to limit pornography on the air, you must (to be consistent) be ready to demand the expression of liberal views on political topics.

Whether Feinstein and Schumer will get their way is another matter. The “fairness doctrine” was abolished in 1987 amid a good deal of bipartisan self-congratulation, and it seems likely that it still retains most of its unpopularity. Logically, it simply cannot withstand analysis. It certainly doesn’t follow that every political viewpoint that manages to get expressed must be accompanied, or followed, by an equivalent expression of the opposite viewpoint. One can support laws against murder without necessarily insisting on equal time for the arguments in favor of it.

What those who support the “fairness doctrine” are really saying is that they don’t enjoy the fact that their views have so little support. And while that’s perfectly understandable, it is no justification for the proposition that society must artificially create a situation in which unpopular views receive the same attention and respect as others that have more.


This article originally appeared on on Nov 24, 2008


  • William Rusher

    William A. Rusher, a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute, was the publisher of National Review magazine from 1957 to 1988. A prominent conservative spokesman, Rusher gained national recognition over forty years as a television and radio personality. Since 1973, his syndicated column "The Conservative Advocate" has appeared in newspapers across the U.S. He is also a prolific author and lecturer, with five books and numerous articles. His notable works include "The Making of the New Majority Party" and "The Rise of the Right." An influential political activist, Rusher was instrumental in the 1961 draft of Barry Goldwater for the 1964 Republican nomination, which reshaped the Republican Party and continued under Ronald Reagan. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, served in the Air Force during World War II, and worked at a major Wall Street law firm. He also served as associate counsel to the U.S. Senate's Internal Security Subcommittee before joining National Review. In 1989, Rusher became a Distinguished Fellow at the Claremont Institute, continuing to write and advise from his home in San Francisco. He remains active on various boards, including the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, National Review Inc., and the Media Research Center.

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