After years of dormancy, the so-called Fairness Doctrine has returned. But the new doctrine goes beyond traditional boundaries of broadcast media to cover books, magazines, and the Internet.
The Fairness Doctrine dates back to the mid-20th century, when the FCC required broadcasters to discuss public issues while presenting differing views. It ended during the Reagan Administration but came roaring back with the election of President Obama.
The provision requiring broadcasters to present balanced opinions remains the most controversial aspect of the rule, but is passionately defended by its promoters.
“When a certain commodity can’t compete in the open market, we typically subsidize it. That’s what we’re doing with our ideas since people apparently won’t listen to them voluntarily,” said Mary Huss of StayOff.org, a liberal activist group. “So think of it as a subsidy for much-needed balance in viewpoints.”
Huss and other progressives emphasize the fairness of having different views presented. “You shouldn’t just hear one side of an issue; you should hear ours, too,” she said.
The new variation of the Fairness Doctrine goes beyond broadcast media – adding fuel to the debate in the process. Books, magazines, and Web sites are also required to present contrasting views on public policy issues.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski defends the broad coverage. “In this day and age, people are getting their information from sources beyond the traditional media covered by the original doctrine,” he said. “So it’s our job to keep up and make sure fairness exists in all media.”
The law will apply to all new books and magazines produced in the year 2010 on. For every book or article, authors will be required to publish another work that approaches the subject matter from the opposite viewpoint.
“If you write a book against Barack Obama, you now must write one in favor of him; if you do an article on why high taxes are bad, you must do one on why they are good,” said Copps. “This will ensure public access to a wide range of ideas.”
In order to comply, authors will be prevented from publishing their original work until they produce one from an opposing view as well. The author must then submit both manuscripts to the FCC Fairness Doctrine Review Commission, which will study them to make sure there is ideological balance.
In determining whether there is balance, the FCC will consider such factors as the length of the respective works and the number of arguments made for both sides. The Review Commission will then vote on whether the balance requirement is met and the book may be published.
Opponents of the rule decried it as going too far. “The original Fairness Doctrine only applied to broadcast media, and that was bad enough,” said Mark Nelson, president of the Media Freedom Alliance, which strongly lobbied against the new law.
The rule also applies to the Internet. Authors of Web sites with partisan or ideological leanings will be required to make sites with opposing content or risk being shut down.
In recent years, conservative books have enjoyed vast popularity, while books promoting liberal views haven’t fared as well. To remedy this imbalance, the Fairness Doctrine requires conservative publishing companies to be forcibly closed down until liberal publishing companies become more competitive.
Some conservative publishers are so popular that their headquarters will be bombed and their books burned in order to allow liberal counterparts to compete.
“We will level the playing field by leveling these companies, literally,” said Genachowski. “This is the same basic principle we apply with anti-trust laws to corporate monopolies, so it makes sense to do it with publishers that have a monopoly on ideas.”
Many argue that old suspicions about the doctrine being a threat to the First Amendment have been confirmed. Supporters counter that the rule’s detractors are opposing basic fairness.
“Those who don’t like this would rather we only have one set of ideas, one way of thinking,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who was chief sponsor of the legislation mandating the doctrine. “You know who else believed in that? Hitler.”