Opinion and Forefront

VAUGHN: Restore civility with the Fairness Doctrine

February 12, 2011

Julia VaughnIn the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the horrifying murders of innocent citizens at a congressional town hall meeting in Tucson, many are calling for a return to civility in public discourse.

While it is difficult to regulate the tone of political speech without venturing onto the slippery slope of censorship, this tragedy reinforces the need to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, a regulatory concept that served the public well for many years by requiring broadcasters to air contrasting points of view when covering controversial topics.

Although the Fairness Doctrine would not stop politicians and political commentators from using violent imagery and hate speech designed not to inform but to incite, it would guarantee that opposing views be heard. That simple policy would encourage political speakers to choose their words carefully, since outrageous speech would be met with the most requests for equal time to respond. Most wise politicians don’t look for avenues to give their opponents opportunities to be heard.

And, too many of us are exposed only to those opinions with which we agree, leading to public policy debates based on limited perspectives. While people have the right to seek news and information from whatever sources they wish, broadcasters who use the public airwaves still have an obligation to operate in “the public interest.” For most of the history of broadcasting in the United States, that meant making sure all sides of an issue were presented.

That all changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. He appointed former broadcast industry attorney Mark Fowler as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the assault on programming in the public interest began. Fowler rejected any suggestion that a license to broadcast came with any public interest obligations, famously referring to television as just another appliance, “it’s a toaster with pictures,” and ridiculing those who believed that television and radio play a unique role in promoting political discourse.

At first, the Reagan FCC just refused to enforce the Fairness Doctrine; later, through some legal maneuvering, they repealed it. Since then, political coverage on broadcast radio and TV has undergone a dramatic transformation—away from balance and fairness and heavily tilted toward blistering sound bites that attack, not illuminate.

Failure to present both sides of controversial issues fosters the toxic atmosphere that pervades the American political process today. If people can tune in to hours of talk radio and never hear an opposing view, they are more likely to entrench themselves in a single way of thinking and have difficulty engaging in political discourse that is civil and respectful of other opinions.

We will never find solutions to our nation’s pressing problems if we cannot listen to opposing views and recognize that, while we may disagree, it is vital in a democratic form of government for all views to be presented.

So I’m disappointed that Rep. Mike Pence is planning to introduce the Broadcaster Freedom Act. The act would prevent the FCC from regulating content on the airwaves or reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine. While it is not surprising that Pence, a former TV talk show host, would side with the broadcasting industry, it is alarming that he is willing to embrace a status quo that promotes lack of understanding and disrespect for diverse views.

Certainly the media landscape has changed a lot since the Fairness Doctrine’s demise. Cable television and the Internet have spawned an almost endless menu of information and opinion for motivated seekers to access, although the accuracy of this information should be carefully evaluated. From my perspective, though, simply having access to more sources of information has not led to a more informed populace.

Television and radio broadcasters remain the most powerful shapers of public opinion, particularly on local issues. We need to bring back the Fairness Doctrine and insist that broadcasters use the public airwaves to engage citizens in productive discussions of important issues instead of providing a megaphone to the mudslingers.•

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Vaughn is policy director for Common Cause/Indiana, a nonpartisan citizens lobbying organization that works for open, honest and accountable government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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