What was The Fairness Doctrine?

After the January 6, 2021 siege on Capitol Hill, I began hearing people saying we need to bring back “The Fairness Doctrine,” as if that genie could be put back into the bottle.

But what exactly was “The Fairness Doctrine?”

It was a policy enacted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949 requiring the holder of a broadcast license to both present controversial issues of public importance, and to present these issues in a manner that was honest, equitable, fair and balanced.

In other words, broadcasters were supposed to not only uncover what the people in their broadcast service area should be aware of, but also to present both sides of the issue.

Operate in the Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity

From the beginning of my broadcast management career, I knew that my number one job was to protect the radio station’s FCC broadcast license to operate. Without a broadcast license, you were out of business. Second, my radio station(s) must operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity of the people in the area we were licensed to serve with our broadcasts.

The FCC created The Fairness Doctrine to ensure that “all sides of important public questions were presented fairly.”

For decades, this doctrine was seen as the keystone of broadcasters fulfilling their commitment to operating in the public interest. Compliance with The Fairness Doctrine was a primary litmus test during the license renewal process.

It was during the 1960s, when I started my radio career, that the FCC increased their enforcement of broadcaster compliance to The Fairness Doctrine. In 1963, the FCC formally stated that the presentation of only one side of an issue during a sponsored program would require that opposing views be given free air time to present their side. That rule became known as the Cullman Doctrine.

Broadcaster’s Free Speech

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that all of this increased oversight by the FCC on a broadcast station’s program content was seen as interference with a broadcaster’s “free speech.”

This would eventually be challenged at the Supreme Court in the Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC decision of 1969, with the high court upholding the constitutionality of the public interest standard in general and The Fairness Doctrine in particular. In their decision, the court stated, “It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.”

The End of The Fairness Doctrine

In 1985, the FCC finally decided that The Fairness Doctrine was incompatible with the public interest. It would eliminate this rule in 1987, and in 2011, the FCC removed the rule that implemented the policy from the Federal Register.

“[T]he Federal Communications Commission should reestablish two principles that formerly served this country well: the public service requirement and the fairness doctrine. Every television and radio station should once again be required to devote a meaningful percentage of its programming to public service broadcasting. The public, after all, owns the airwaves through which signals are broadcast, and the rights-of-way in which cables are strung. And every television and radio station should once again have to follow the fairness doctrine: those with opposing views should have the right to respond to viewpoints expressed on the station.”
Bernie Sanders, United States Senator

Trump Tweets NBC Broadcasts “Fake News”

In October of 2017, President Donald J. Trump tweeted “With all the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

Broadcast legal experts immediately criticized and dismissed Trump’s tweet as both implausible and having no legal basis.

The American Bar Association’s Legal Fact Check wrote:

“The FCC publishes specific rules and guidelines related to news hoaxes and distortions and bars a licensee from knowingly broadcasting false information concerning a crime or a catastrophe. But the bar or threshold is high. Six days after Trump’s tweet, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his agency cannot revoke the license of a broadcaster ‘based on content of a particular newscast,’ and cited First Amendment protections of the press. FCC statements previously noted that the commission ‘often receives complaints … that stations have aired inaccurate or one-sided news reports or comments, covered stories inadequately or overly dramatized the events that they cover… (but) the commission generally will not intervene in such cases because it would be inconsistent with the First Amendment to replace the journalistic judgment of licensees with our own.’”


The Fairness Doctrine ended during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, however, it’s often wrongly stated that this gave birth to cable’s FOX NEWS CHANNEL. It did not. Cable channels are not, nor have they ever been, regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Similarly, the internet is also not regulated by the FCC.

The Fairness Doctrine only applied to the licenses of broadcast radio and television stations.

A case could be made that the end of The Fairness Doctrine did open the door to the Rush Limbaugh Show, which made its nationally syndicated premiere in 1988. Rush Limbaugh was a savior for AM radio stations, who saw most of their music audiences moving over to FM radio stations, and those advertising dollars moving right along with them.

Limbaugh proved so popular with AM talk radio audiences, that AM radio station owners added more talk shows like Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and others.

Cumulus Media

Following the siege on our nation’s Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, Cumulus Media, the radio syndicator for the Mark Levin Show sent a memo to its talk show hosts to stop spreading rhetoric about a stolen election or face termination.

Brian Philips, executive vice president of content for Cumulus Media wrote in his memo:

“We need to help induce calm NOW (and) will not tolerate any suggestion that the election has not ended. The election has been resolved, there are no alternative acceptable ‘paths.’ If you transgress this policy, you can expect to separate from the company immediately.”

Cumulus Media operates Westwood One, which syndicates Trump-supporting radio talk personalities like Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino.

Free Speech

I find it ironic that the people screaming the loudest about what Cumulus Media has done is to thwart free speech. It’s not “free speech” to tell lies. United States constitutional law does not always protect false statements under the First Amendment.

Moreover, these same people are usually the ones who say, “Let the market decide.” In other words, let the corporations and companies make those hard decisions.

In this case, Cumulus Media did just that.

iHeartMedia which syndicates Trump-supporter hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity has not publicly announced any similar action for these talk hosts as of the writing of this blog article.

In 2016, SiriusXM suspended conservative talk host Glenn Beck for agreeing with one of his show’s guests who asked, “what patriot will step up to remove Donald Trump from office if he’s elected president and oversteps his authority?” SiriusXM, operator of America’s two satellite radio services, suspended Beck because they worried the conversation might “be reasonably construed by some to have been advocating harm against an individual currently running for office.”

Michael Harrison, who publishes Talkers magazine was sympathetic to the Cumulus memo saying:

“Corporations are responsible for what’s on their air. They have to deal with client feedback. They have to deal with public image and protection of their license. Private corporations can control their platforms, and I believe that in and of itself is an expression of free speech in action.”

I’m all for the Fairness Doctrine, whatever that is.

-George Voinovich*

*George Victor Voinovich (July 15, 1936 – June 12, 2016) was an American politician who served as a United States senator from Ohio from 1999 to 2011, the 65th governor of Ohio from 1991 to 1998 and the 54th mayor of Cleveland from 1980 to 1989, the last Republican to serve in that office.


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21 responses to “What was The Fairness Doctrine?

  1. Bib Harlan

    Thank you for this in-depth look at The Fairness Doctrine and fairness in media. It is interesting that the terrestrial radio stations only supported right wing talk shows…with the liberal slanted shows failing. But the battle was fierce between the two sides on cable TV and in another way on broadcast TV networks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bib, Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I have puzzled over that very question regarding talk radio. The only conclusion I could draw was, one form of radio stood firm in its point of view and NEVER changed no matter what new information or new facts were presented, whereas the other form was open to different points of view and willing to take a new position in light of new information or facts that came to light. That might have made the latter form of talk radio hard to “put it into a well-defined box.”

      Make sense?


      • Joe

        I largely agree with the statement that “one form” of radio was more willing to change. Unfortunately, we see the lack of that same concept in our society. Be it medicine, religion, politics, or whatever. We “should” all strive to learn and do better. But conservative radio strives to push the same message “no matter what.”

        I had a PD one time say “liberal radio is not about controversy.”
        Admittedly, Air America network was arguably big on trying. But unfortunately for all of us, they had problems on various levels.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve heard it explained a different way, and this sort of resonated with me: modern “liberalism” is based on emotion, “conservatism” based on linear thinking. Conservative radio is easy to understand. It touts traditional values both culturally and politically. It’s difficult to understand what modern liberalism is all about. And it seems to be difficult to communicate. When someone says “We need change,” but can’t explain what we’re changing from, and what we’re changing to, it’s not effective. Tough sell on a medium that appeals to the average person.


  2. VBaskin2010

    It would take a much bigger miracle to bring that back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. George Ferko

    “I find it ironic that the people screaming the loudest about what Cumulus Media has done is to thwart free speech. It’s not “free speech” to tell lies. United States constitutional law does not always protect false statements under the First Amendment.”

    There is no First Amendment exception for lies, except in the narrow context of defamation and where a lie (or a truthful statement for that matter) would lead to imminent lawless action.

    The key to the Red Lion decision and why the Fairness Doctrine was upheld against a First Amendment challenge was because of the limited number of license available: “Because of the scarcity of radio frequencies, the Government is permitted to put restraints on licensees in favor of others whose views should be expressed on this unique medium.”


    • George, thanks for weighing in on this topic.

      You’re right, the media landscape back in the time of Red Lion decision was filled with a lot less radio signals with AM radio still the dominant band.

      It’s a changed media world in the 21st Century.


  4. I think there’s a lot of revisionist history regarding the Fairness Doctrine. I’ve seen memes claiming it applied to print, and would have stopped the creation of conservative web sites, and it “prohibited broadcasters from lying”. One would think of a scene from “Good Morning Vietnam” where a higher up is marking news copy with a red pen, or running a stopwatch making sure that if someone talked nice about the Republicans for 8 minutes and 37 seconds, someone would talk nice about the Democrats for 8 minutes and 37 seconds. It wasn’t at all like that. Rush Limbaugh had a show in Sacramento before the enfvof the Fairness Doctrine, and would have still had a national show. There were plenty of religious stations talking about overturning Roe vs Wade, and blasting public schools in the late 70s without a spokesperson from the other view. In the unlikely event the fairness doctrine could be reinstated, and applied to the Internet the one thing you can do is require certain programming the 1 thing you cannot do is for study buddy to watch or listen to it. Anyone can hit that button before you can say “public interest, convenience and necessity “. Having said all that, I think saying on the public airwaves that an election was stolen and needed to be overthrown, is a bridge way too far.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Walter Luffman

    Restoring the Fairness Doctrine and enforcing it impartially would, IMHO, effectively end most political talk on broadcast radio and television. This would be especially bad news for AM stations that were saved from going dark during the 1990s and 2000s by embracing news-talk formats. With the many other AMs (and FMs) already serving the more general talk and sports-talk formats, as well as those with religious and foreign-language formats, what will these stations offer in order to survive? Maybe a few can find an underserved market for some sort of music format, or an all-news format; but many (most?) will be forced by economics to just cease operations.

    Cable, streaming and podcasting, if they remain exempt from the Fairness Doctrine, will provide the “unbalanced” political talk so many listeners clearly want. These media will do well, at least until public interest in that particular programming wanes … or the Fairness Doctrine is killed again.


  6. To understand how we got here, we must focus on the chief architect of the removal of the Fairness Act. Mark Fowler, a broadcasting lawyer, who was Reagan’s FCC appointed chairman. No doubt both Reagan, a former broadcaster and actor, as well as Fowler, knew the inconvenience and limitations of the Act upon broadcasters. As we broadcasters know, nothing works better for ratings than a race to the bottom of the brain stem programming. In fact, Sinclair Media pivoted to this shock jock format when their stock was tanking. As Roy Williams has pointed out in his book “Pendulum”, during the past two decades, radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, rode the start of tribalism 40-year cycle to great success. In my opinion, the death of Limbaugh will be the end of an era in am radio and the further shrinking base of advertisers and listeners. As we near the midpoint of the “We” cycle, it will be interesting to see how radio will impact the shift toward the “I” phase.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Victor, I too am watching events unfold with my copy of the book “Pendulum.” It feels like we are witnessing the very movement of the pendulum from “We” to “Me”.

      Pendulum points out that “virtually every instance of widespread viciousness in Western society has happened within ten years of the Zenith of a “We.” It should be noted that a complete oscillation of the pendulum takes 80-years and that 2023 will mark the zenith of the current “We” period in the Western world.

      I wrote more about this back in August 2020. You can read that here: https://dicktaylorblog.com/2020/08/02/the-times-they-are-a-changing/

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Colleen LaRose

    As a student of communications, I recall being shocked to learn that there is no”truth in advertising” required for politicians. The thinking was that the public would know or learn the truth and would vote accordingly. But did we see the potential for foreign and domestic adversaries collaborating to bring down the country? Clearly, having biased and untruthful media is damaging the country and the social fabric, but it is the lack of truthfulness coming from politicians with no recourse for those lies that often starts that ball rolling. Of course, truth is as easy to manipulate as statistics are…and people will always defend ideas that support their ideologies. The problem as I see it is that we have a lack of integrity in leadership – political, business and even religious…who are willing to bend what they know to be the truth to attend to their agenda. When society no longer values truth as a core tenet, when the values of the society devolve to be only about money and power, we have all lost. The most important skill we can teach to young people is the skill of debate to help them discern truth. Unless you are willing to take the other side of an argument and research to find the truth as to the validity and logic of both sides of the argument, you can never discern truth for yourself…and will always be dependent on other people, like the media to inform your position. I would also highly recommend teaching young people sociology, that is, what does it take for people to get along in society. The world is constantly changing and technologies such as Artificial Intelligence will require new thinking. Having an understanding and appreciation for what needs to be done to continue humanity will require a willingness to adopt mutual values that serve the greater good and not the individual ambitions of those who seek dominion over others. Truth seems to me to be the best chance for the ultimate survival of humanity. Being willing to face the truth, even if it does not support your personal agenda, is what we must instill as the number one character trait by which we honor and measure success.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Colleen, THANK YOU.

      I read and re-read all you wrote.

      My hope is that all students of communications are as astute, and will knowing put the truth before all else in their communications work.

      I truly appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts here on the blog. I hope you will continue doing so in the future.

      You are a beacon of good things to come.


      • Colleen LaRose

        Ahhhh…I need to clarify. I was a communications/speech major with minors in Psych and Sociology …but that was many years ago, as I am at the tail end of the baby boomers regarding age…. However, I am a lifelong learner…and enjoy teaching upcoming college students. So many are confused as to where they can find information that is trustworthy these days. (I often refer them to the Center for Public Integrity). Glad you liked what I wrote Dick. I will be following your insightful blog and the many thoughtful responses it engenders.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank You for the clarification Colleen.

        We are all lifelong learners.

        As I told my students at the university, the day you graduate is not the end of your education, college is the launchpad to a life of learning.

        Thank You for following the blog and I hope you will continue to contribute your thoughts.

        It’s by sharing, that we all learn.


  8. To have a better understanding of the power of media in America, watch this powerful film: https://www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com/


  9. Pingback: Can Algorithms Be Fair? | DickTaylorBlog

  10. Pingback: Best of the Blog 2021 | DickTaylorBlog

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