Introduced in the late 1940s, the Fairness Doctrine required over-the-air broadcasters (but never cable operators) to give equal coverage to opposing political views in news and public affairs programming. The doctrine was abandoned in President Reagan’s deregulation campaign of the 1980s. During the more than 30 years of its existence broadcasters grudgingly adhered to the doctrine's rules and made annual reports to the FCC listing public service programs. But despite this pressure, discussion and interview shows commonly aired on weekend afternoons or during the early morning hours when few people were watching or listening. Many broadcasters eventually abandoned meaningful issue-oriented programs altogether, replacing them with bland DJ shows or sitcoms.
Today there is no Fairness Doctrine and broadcast television remains largely a place where entertainment content and sports shows far outnumber informative public affairs and news programs. Commercial radio has even less interest in providing a forum for balanced consideration of important public issues. Shameless provocateurs build ratings with fact free hysterical rants, most with a rightward tilt. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck just this week reflected on the current Japanese disaster by suggesting that the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe were “payback” for various Japanese transgressions against God or the American way of life. These commentators, with numerous imitators at the national and local levels, regularly depict the politically moderate Democratic president as a foreign-born alien who can’t prove his U.S. citizenship and who wants to impose socialism, or worse, on the American people.
That brings us back to public broadcasting, especially National Public Radio. This outstanding news and public affairs network is being targeted by Republicans because its fair-minded journalism offers an effective antidote to the excesses of right-wing radio and the platform it provides to the conservative ideology of Republican and Tea Party politicians. The $22 million annual allocation of federal funds to NPR is trivial in the big budget picture. But under the guise of fiscal responsibility, conservatives want to kill it. A revitalized Fairness Doctrine would have little chance of passage or eventual positive impact in this unbalanced environment.