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The Fairness Doctrine and Ronald Reagan

Claim

"Ronald Reagan's FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine which, since 1949, required media to present both sides' opinions ... A Democrat-controlled Congress passed a bill to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Reagan vetoed the bill."

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On March 28 2022, an Imgur user shared a meme (“The Father of Fake News”) about President Ronald Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine, and the Federal Communications Commission’s purported role in the rise of partisan “news”:

Text on the meme (with a “Rescuing Religion from Republicans” footer) read:

The Father of Fake News

Ronald Reagan’s FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine which, since 1949, required media to present both sides’ opinions in the rare event they weren’t just reporting straight news.

A Democrat-controlled Congress passed a bill to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.

Reagan vetoed the bill. Fox News followed in the 1990s. America is now more polarized and misinformed than ever.

The meme contained a timeline of related claims about the fairness doctrine, which were:

  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) abolished the Fairness Doctrine (introduced in 1949) during President Ronald Reagan’s administration;
  • A “Democrat-controlled” Congress voted to re-introduce the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and;
  • Reagan vetoed the bill, presumably after Congress voted to approve the measure.

A final aspect opined that the end of the Fairness Doctrine paved the way for partisan news endeavors (naming Fox News in particular) to flourish. That particular claim was more in the realm of opinion than fact, and therefore difficult to verify.

The Fairness Doctrine Was Originally Introduced in 1949

Part of the meme stated that the Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949, requiring “media to present both sides’ opinions in the rare event they weren’t just reporting straight news.”

A 2011 Congressional Research Service report centering on the Fairness Doctrine [PDF] provided information about its introduction:

In 1949, finding its authority in the public interest obligations imposed upon broadcasters by the Communications Act, the FCC issued a report entitled In the Matter of Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees.  The report affirmatively established the duty of broadcast licensees to cover controversial issues of public importance in a fair and balanced manner. The obligation is known as the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine and Ronald Re...
The Fairness Doctrine and Ronald Reagan

The Fairness Doctrine consisted of two basic requirements:

(1) that every licensee devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance; and

(2) that in doing so, [the broadcaster must be] fair – that is, [the broadcaster] must affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues presented.

These obligations were not satisfied by simply granting air time to those who requested it in order to respond to an issue previously discussed during the broadcaster’s regular programming. Broadcasters instead had the affirmative duty to determine what the appropriate opposing viewpoints were on these controversial issues, and who was best suited to present them. If sponsored programming was not an option, the broadcasters had to provide it at their own expense. Further requirements of the Fairness Doctrine were eventually codified into regulation. The personal attack rule stated that when personal attacks were made on individuals involved in public issues, the broadcaster had to, within one week of the broadcast, notify the person attacked, provide him with a copy of the broadcast (either script or tape), and allow him an opportunity to respond over the broadcaster’s facilities. The political editorial rule required that when a broadcaster endorsed a particular political candidate, the broadcaster was required to provide the other qualified candidates for the same office (or their representatives) the opportunity to respond over the broadcaster’s facilities.

Congress amended Section 315 of the Communications Act in 1959 to include what seemed to be a tacit approval of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine.

Immediately thereafter, in a section about enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine, the report continued:

In reviewing particular broadcasts for potential violations of the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC looked to whether the licensee had acted “reasonably and in good faith to present a fair cross-section of opinion on the controversial issue.” The FCC emphasized that harmless errors and honest mistakes were not actionable and that the merits of the actual competing viewpoints presented were not under review by the agency. By way of example, in the course of enforcing the doctrine, the FCC found that the establishment of a National Fair Employment Practices Commission was an issue of public importance that triggered Fairness Doctrine obligations, as were issues such as the potential institution of pay TV, a nutritionist giving advice about diet and health, programs describing socialist forms of government, etc. Consequences for failure to comply with the Fairness Doctrine could have ranged anywhere from a requirement that time be granted to unaired viewpoints, to punishment as severe as a loss of license or a substantial demerit in a comparative renewal proceeding.

‘During the Reagan Administration, the FCC Abolished the Fairness Doctrine’

On August 5 1987, the New York Times‘ “F.C.C. Votes Down Fairness Doctrine In A 4-0 Decision” reported:

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously today [August 5 1987] to abolish its fairness doctrine on the ground that it unconstitutionally restricts the free-speech rights of broadcast journalists.

“We seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country’s inception,” said the new chairman of the F.C.C., Dennis R. Patrick.

He and the three other commissioners said the 38-year-old fairness doctrine was stifling the democratic debate it was supposed to promote. The doctrine, which evolved through court rulings and commission policy statements over the years, requires broadcasters to give contrasting viewpoints on issues of public importance. In addition to news reports, it can apply to advocacy advertising, as it did in the case that led to [the August 1987] ruling …

In the article, the Times referenced the Reagan administration’s position in favor of abolishing the Fairness Doctrine.

‘A Democrat-Controlled Congress Passed a Bill to Re-instate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Reagan Vetoed the Bill’

In the same New York Times article from August 5 1987, the outlet reported:

The broadcasting industry and others joined in hailing the decision, which is to take effect later [in August 1987], after it is published in The Federal Register. But various civil rights, consumer and other advocacy groups expressed dismay. Several members of Congress vowed to renew their efforts to enact the doctrine into law, a drive that failed in June [1987] when President Reagan vetoed such legislation.

[…]

Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, called [the FCC’s August 1987] decision “wrongheaded, misguided and illogical,” and said the doctrine provides the only means for many members of the public to be heard.

“The American people, not the broadcasters, own the airwaves,” he said.

In the House, Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the commission had tried to ”flout the will of Congress,” and predicted Congress would move to enact the doctrine as law.

Per the August 1987 article, Reagan’s veto came before the FCC’s vote to abolish the Fairness Doctrine. On June 21 1987, the Los Angeles Times article “Reagan’s Veto Kills Fairness Doctrine Bill” began:

President Reagan, intensifying the debate over whether the nation’s broadcasters must present opposing views of controversial issues, has vetoed legislation to turn into law the 38-year-old “fairness doctrine,” the White House announced [on June 20 1987].

The doctrine, instituted by the Federal Communications Commission as public policy in 1949, requires the nation’s radio and television stations to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.”

“This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Reagan said in his veto message. “In any other medium besides broadcasting, such federal policing of the editorial judgment of journalists would be unthinkable.”

The article included details about an April 1987 vote in the Senate (59-31 in favor of codifying the Fairness Doctrine into law), and a June 1987 vote in the House of Representatives (302-102 in favor):

Opponents also contend that the explosive growth of the telecommunications industry in recent years makes the fairness doctrine obsolete. In his veto message, Reagan noted that the FCC has concluded “that the doctrine is an unnecessary and detrimental regulatory mechanism.”

The legislation containing the doctrine passed the House on a 302-102 vote on June 3 [1987] and had been approved by the Senate in April [1987] on a 59-31 vote.

If the measure does not become law, the fairness doctrine and its obligations still will remain in effect as FCC policy. However, supporters have been seeking to codify the regulation for fear that the FCC could act to repeal it–particularly in light of a federal appeals court ruling last year that concluded that the doctrine was not a law, leaving its enforcement up to the FCC.

The meme also held that a “Democrat-controlled Congress” passed a bill to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.” A page on history.house.gov about the 100th Congress (1987-1989) validated that claim:

Democrats regained control of the Senate and held the House after the 1986 elections.

Aftermath

A July 2017 article in the American Journal of Public Health (“The Relentless Enemies of Science”) began with a reference to four decades of distorted news reporting around matters such as public health and climate change:

The best defense is a good offense. This is not Vince Lombardi from the Green Bay Packers or General Eisenhower speaking. It is the credo of a small band of ideologically driven scientists with strong political and corporate connections who for more than 40 years “deliberately distorted public debate, running effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well established scientific knowledge” to undermine public health, the environment, and public faith in science.

They are the “merchants of doubt,” the central characters in the book first published in 2010 by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. This is a masterful, highly engaging, yet chilling nonfictional thriller that exposes four decades of corporate malfeasance. In seven compelling chapters, the authors, doubling as forensic historians and artful storytellers, take us through the strategies and tactics these scientists used to undermine national and international responses to seven key areas of public health and the environment. These areas are harm of tobacco smoking, the Strategic Defense Initiative and nuclear arms proliferation, production of acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, harm from secondhand smoke, anthropogenic climate change, and the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).

That review later referenced a “fairness doctrine” that relied entirely on false dichotomies in order to maintain a harmful status quo, particularly on matters of scientific consensus:

The tobacco, energy, arms, and chemical industries work to make sure debate is kept alive by developing false dichotomies. Once established, they insist that the media cover both sides of the debate with balance. This is justified using the so-called fairness doctrine, even though, as we know with climate change, the number countering what is now accepted scientific fact is very small indeed.

An April 2021 editorial on TheScienceSurvey.com posited that the return of the Fairness Doctrine would “force radio talk shows and local TV stations into showing the full truth on issues to their audience.” A similar 2018 editorial on the European site SocialEurope.eu called for “reestablishing a modern fairness doctrine,” asserting that “the factual information required for a high quality democracy” had been “obfuscated” on American platforms.

Summary

A March 28 2022 Imgur meme asserted that “Ronald Reagan’s FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine [established in 1949],” that a “Democrat-controlled Congress passed a bill to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987,” and that Reagan “vetoed the bill.” That timeline matches archival news reports, which covered bills passed in the House and Senate in June and April 1987 attempting to codify the Fairness Doctrine. In August 1987, the FCC voted to abolish the Fairness Doctrine. Although the meme’s timeline was slightly out of order, it aligned with news reporting of Congressional efforts, Reagan’s subsequent veto, and the FCC’s discontinuation of the Fairness Doctrine in August 1987.