Broadcasters are cheering the final demise of the fairness doctrine, a federal policy that required the airing of both sides of an issue on TV or radio. But their cheering should be tempered by sober reflection on what that policy tried to accomplish.
Last week, a US appellate court ordered the Federal Communications Commission to drop the last two remnants of the fairness doctrine. One is a rule mandating equal time for opponents when a broadcast station endorses a candidate. The other grants free airtime to anyone deemed to have been attacked over the airwaves.
The rules, like the broader doctrine jettisoned by the FCC back in 1987, have lost some of their rationale as broadcast media have proliferated. Cable and satellite transmission has hugely expanded the number of stations. The Internet has further increased the ability of all points of view to find an outlet.
The fairness doctrine began in the late 1940s, when the TV age was dawning and the power of media to shape thought was coming into focus. For years, there were three networks and relatively few channels. The airwaves were a public trust to be used for the wider good, not just profits.
A big part of that wider good is a healthy democracy - letting all sides be heard, and not letting the power of media promote only certain views.
Such concerns are not outdated, despite the explosive growth of new media. A genuine stand for fairness might, for example, require that credible third-candidates be given an opportunity to join in televised debates. It also might encourage TV news-magazine shows to more diligently consider all sides of issues.
The question is whether regulatory oversight is the best way to ensure fairness. Broadcasters say they want the same free rein given by the First Amendment to newspapers. The rapid growth of media outlets bolsters their case. Will the need to be credible to viewers, and to live up to their own ethical standards, produce balance and fairness? Broadcasters free from all imposed fairness are under an even bigger obligation to prove that the answer is yes.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society