25 years after the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, we need new solutions

We need more local broadcasting, not a return to the Fairness Doctrine, to enhance our media diet.

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Reagan administration’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did away with the Fairness Doctrine. It ruled that the 38-year policy of requiring broadcasters to devote airtime to controversial public issues and to offer diverging viewpoints was obsolete because of the proliferation of cable TV stations.

One of the best examples of the doctrine in action was in 1983, when ABC’s apocalyptic miniseries “The Day After” angered those who believed that a nuclear force was essential to keeping the Soviet Union in check. Following the broadcast, “Nightline” host Ted Koppel hosted a live panel discussion with a diverse group of scientists, policy wonks and public intellectuals. It was during this discussion that Carl Sagan, the legendary scientist, introduced into the public consciousness the phrase “nuclear winter,” a frightening image that remains part of our cultural understanding of the ghastly effects of nuclear warfare.

But the doctrine was not the panacea its champions believed it to be, and it wouldn’t cure what ails us today.

First of all, the FCC never concerned itself with talk shows, and these currently dominate the airwaves, on radio and on cable TV.

Secondly, there are abundant channels to surf, and the Internet is wide open, too.

But critics of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine were also wrong, because lifting it hasn’t given the American public better media nutrition.

Today, just a handful of media conglomerates hog both the TV and radio spectrum.

And local TV news programming is shrinking, with enterprise reporting fading fast. Many stations devote more time to covering the slight variations in temperature within a 30-mile radius than, say, to lifting the veil off of state politics or offering penetrating analysis of school funding.

In fact, a 2006 survey of television news in Chicago conducted by Northwestern University showed that “most news stories have no direct effect on the lives of people in the viewing area.” It added, “Only a small portion of news stories include actionable information.”

Nor has the Internet filled the vacuum. While social media creates buzz, it infrequently drives political debate.

Restoration of the Fairness Doctrine wouldn’t change this course. However, a move toward local ownership of broadcast media — where those in charge have a face in the community — might bring us more information we need and a greater variety of meaningful voices and political sensibilities.

Those were the goals of the Fairness Doctrine, and though it’s dead, they remain worthwhile. So let’s find new ways to accomplish them. Boosting local ownership is one good place to start.

Fred McKissack Jr. is a former Progressive magazine editor and editorial writer who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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