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Revive a Fairness Doctrine

January 22nd, 2021 by dk

Harrowing events from the last few weeks have reminded me of my first job after college. I wrote public service announcements for a local Chicago television station. The Community Relations Department had only five or six staffers — less than a third of the crew that produced Bozo’s Circus every weekday down the hall.

One of the company’s corporate vice presidents had an office around the corner from my workstation but we didn’t see him very often. He got a haircut every Thursday, just before he taped his only on-air presence. It may have been his only responsibility.

He recorded editorials on behalf of the station and its owners each week. Our department coordinated the non-technical details, as well as for rebuttals proposed by members of the community.

The editorials and the rebuttals would air late at night, usually just before sign-off. We were WGN’s smallest department, but also its most important. Without us, the station could have lost its charter and its license to broadcast Bozo’s Circus.

The FCC’s Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to address “issues of public importance” and then to give those with opposing views “the opportunity to present their case to the community,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Fairness Doctrine was dismantled in the 1980s. The Reagan administration instructed the FCC to stop enforcing it. Congress passed legislation in 1987 that codified the “doctrine” and extended it to cable television, but Reagan vetoed it.

The Fairness Doctrine, even to a wide-eyed college graduate, seemed impossibly difficult to adjudicate. We joked that the lighting crew might not do their best work when taping rebuttals. We knew that nobody was watching at 2 a.m. — or that those who were wouldn’t remember what was said the next morning.

But it was a requirement, so we did it. When the requirement was removed, we shrugged. What was the worst that could happen? We now have our answer. Americans migrated to opposite rhetorical camps. This didn’t look dangerous until recently. Politicians may have been deeply divided, but Americans were only evenly divided.

Then the Internet confirmed what TV’s Nielsen Ratings only suggested. Viewers not only prefer confirmation over information. They also will watch for longer when the sympathetic views expressed become more extreme. FOX News tugged its viewers further right. MSNBC yanked its viewers further left. 

An evenly divided country became a deeply divided country — all because the Fairness Doctrine didn’t seem worth the trouble. Now that the “trouble” is measured in human lives, we should re-evaluate what some measure of fairness is “worth” to us.

The airwaves belong to the American public. Cable TV uses poles are located on public land. Forget “fair and balanced” as a marketing slogan. Those values has become suddenly urgent for preserving our society.

Can we restore the doctrine without implementing regulations? Underwriters’ Laboratories might provide a model, funded by industry but devoted to protecting the public. We can save people from the shocks we’ve witnessed. Shame on us if we don’t at least try.

Think of all the barbers who would benefit.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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