Many of today’s conservatives probably don’t remember the Fairness Doctrine. Many in the political world today never lived under it since it was repealed 30 years ago in 1987. If it still existed, the world of political talk radio would never have come into being. So why would President Trump want to bring it back?
In a series of tweets on Saturday morning, President Trump once again attacked the media, which is not unusual, but in two tweets he raised the question of whether the Administration should get “equal time.” In the first tweet, Trump said, “Late Night host are dealing with the Democrats for their very ‘unfunny’ & repetitive material, always anti-Trump! Should we get Equal Time?”
A few minutes later, in a second tweet, he said, “More and more people are suggesting that Republicans (and me) should be given Equal Time on T.V. when you look at the one-sided coverage?”
Equal time is essentially what the Fairness Doctrine was about. The Fairness Doctrine was implemented by the FCC under the Radio Act of 1927. In 1949, the FCC interpreted the law to mean that radio and television stations must provide contrasting views on issues of public importance and that, if a public personality was attacked on the air, they had to be given an opportunity to answer.
The policy was upheld in 1969 by the Supreme Court in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that the Fairness Doctrine did not violate the First Amendment and upheld the FCC rule that the subject of a personal on-air attack must be provided with a tape, transcript or summary as well as an opportunity to respond regardless of ability to pay for air time. In 1987, the FCC panel repealed the Fairness Doctrine with a 4-0 vote.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh feared that the new administration would reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. Instead, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski killed the policy permanently in 2011.
Now President Trump’s tweets seem to indicate that the president would like a new version of the Fairness Doctrine. Although Republican politicians do not seem to be lining up to support the president’s call for “equal time,” many of the president’s supporters vocally support the idea on social media.
Although it survived an encounter with the Supreme Court, the Fairness Doctrine has traditionally been viewed as an assault on the First Amendment by conservatives. It is difficult to imagine how conservative talk radio would survive if stations had to provide equal time to the liberal targets of conservative talkers every day. Advertising revenue would be lost and listeners driven away as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others got their equal time every day. It is no coincidence that The Rush Limbaugh Show premiered in 1988, the year after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, kicking off the golden age of political talk radio.
The intention of the Fairness Doctrine was to protect free speech, but, as government regulations so often do, it had the opposite effect. Free speech blossomed with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine where before, the Big Three networks had an effective monopoly on news and political commentary.
There is no shortage of news outlets who present the conservative side of stories. Even among the mainstream media there are the Wall Street Journal, the most successful newspaper in the country, the Washington Times and Fox News, to name just a few. There are many more conservative voices in the alternative media and blogosphere.
The traditional conservative answer to a problem with a free speech problem has been to call for more speech. It is troubling that Mr. Trump’s instincts are to call for more government oversight of speech and limitations on the First Amendment.