Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine Now, and Extend It to Cable and the Web!

By Paul Maxwell Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine Now, and Extend It to Cable and the Web!

Seriously, haven't we all had enough of meaningless "He said!" "She said!" " They all said!" "You're wrong!" "You're evil!" "You lie!" Ok, that last one does ring true … but … enough!

For those of you who may have forgotten, it once was a law of the land that federally licensed over-the-air television and broadcast licensees had to present controversial issues of public importance in an "honest, equitable and balanced" manner. At least, it had to be "honest, equitable and balanced" in the eyes of the commissioners of the Federal Confusion Commission.

That was the law from 1949 until 1987. It was only somewhat weakened in 1969 by a Supreme Court challenge, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.The logic of the law involved the scarcity of broadcast licenses (lots of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, etc; not so many airwaves for radio and DTV).

Don't confuse it with the somewhat similar but very different Fairness Doctrine, Equal Time rule that applies only to political candidates.

As time went on, the Fairness Doctrine became ever more complex. (We're talking D.C. here, so what did you expect?) At any rate, in 1974, the FCC said Congress had delegated the power to mandate a system of "access, either free or paid, for persons or groups wishing to express a viewpoint on a controversial public issue. However, the FCC decided to take no action because broadcasters were "voluntarily" complying with the "spirit" of the doctrine. So far.

Over the years, more legal wrangling ensued, and things got more confusing. Attempts to make sense of "censorship or not" kept escalating until Congress demanded the FCC explain what it actually had mandated via the so-called Fairness Doctrine. The result was -- no surprise! -- the abolishment of the unclear rules. (For more, look here.)

Since then, there's been nothing but noise. White papers, speeches, attempts to reintroduce have littered the year. And the concept of "fairness" -- or even, one might say, "sanity" -- keeps slipping further and further away.

So, enough already, ok? Let's band together in an effort to return civility to public discussion. Let's demand the return of the Fairness Doctrine, applied equally to all forms of public speech.

Random Notes

DirecTV is said to be abandoning renewing Sunday Ticket … and, as John Ourand of Sports Business News wrote, there should be active bidding for the rights, and it will probably reappear as a streaming service.

Retransmission consent keeps getting more expensive. Comcast is bumping most subscribers $4.50/month just to watch local, "free" (!?!), over-the-air broadcast TV. For shame. Save some money and buy an antenna if it's possible to use one where you are. We can't, so we've gone completely to streaming, including our somewhat local signals.

Great column by Steve Effros last week in CableFAX Daily looking ahead to the Biden FCC and -- wait for it -- network neutrality and the packaging of signals with access costs, like HBO Max with AT&T delivery in a package. Stay tuned; it is certain to be interesting. Get ready to hear from former FCC commissioners in more depth than any of us want.

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