The Fairness Doctrine

`A FOOLISH consistency,'' said Emerson, ``is the hobgoblin of little minds.'' Thus it is that one can support both the First Amendment and the ``fairness doctrine.'' The fairness doctrine long obligated radio and television broadcasters to provide reasonably balanced coverage of public issues. If an interest group or individual believed that a broadcaster had failed to reflect opposing viewpoints in its public-affairs programming, the complainant could ask for time to make its case. Failing to receive a satisfactory opportunity, it could go to the Federal Communications Commission for a ruling.

In 1987, after a federal court ruled that the fairness doctrine - though it had been observed for many years - was a regulatory pronouncement that Congress had never codified, the FCC repealed the doctrine. Commissioners appointed by President Reagan contended that, by impinging on editorial content, the fairness doctrine violated the First Amendment. They said it had a ``chilling effect'' on broadcasters' willingness to cover controversial topics.

That argument sounds good, but it remains unconvincing. By and large, government shouldn't tell the press how to do its job. But the broadcast media, utilizing as they do relatively scarce airwaves, operate in an environment different from that of the print media. Anyone with a keyboard and a copier has at least a chance to disseminate a written viewpoint. Not so in broadcasting; even with the proliferation of independent stations and cable outlets, air time is restricted to those with deep pockets or whose names are on a producer's Rolodex.

Bills that would revive the fairness doctrine are wending through both houses of Congress. They don't mandate equal time for all positions on public topics; only that, in its overall programming, a broadcaster present a reasonable mix of views. That strikes us as being in the public interest, and as a slight enough encroachment on the First Amendment to warrant a wise inconsistency.

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