Getting the Fairness Doctrine Wrong–Again

Washington Post: The Making of Sean Hannity

A revealing Washington Post piece (10/10/17) on Sean Hannity makes a common mistake when it comes to the Fairness Doctrine.

In an otherwise informative piece about Fox News‘ Sean Hannity, Donald Trump’s favorite cable anchor, the Washington Post (10/10/17) inaccurately described the Fairness Doctrine, a former FCC rule requiring that broadcasters present controversial issues by including contrasting viewpoints.  In “The Making of Sean Hannity: How a Long Island kid learned to channel red-state rage,” the Post’s Marc Fisher reported:

In 1990, Bill Dunnavent was trying to bring a relatively new concept to northern Alabama — highly opinionated political talk radio. Three years earlier, the Federal Communications Commission had repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which for nearly four decades had required broadcasters to provide equal time to people who disagreed with views expressed on the air. The rules kept political talk on the airwaves within civil bounds, some people said. Others said it unfairly limited debate, keeping it dull and centrist.

Actually, the Fairness Doctrine did not require equal time (Extra!, 1–2/05). Fisher is making a common error, confusing the Doctrine with the FCC’s Equal Time rule, which is still in force, but applies solely to political campaigns and candidates.

Additionally, opinionated talk radio was not “a relatively new concept” in 1989 (Extra!, 1–2/07). Indeed, opinionated talk radio, which was always dominated by right-wing personalities, was born in 1960, and flourished in local markets under the Fairness Doctrine, which wasn’t jettisoned until 1987. By taking callers with contrasting views, talk radio was actually seen as comporting with the Fairness Doctrine.

Fisher is not alone in these errors. Over the years, liberals and conservatives have respectively blamed and credited the demise of the Fairness Doctrine for the rapid growth of right-wing talk radio in 1980s and 1990s.

In reality, talk radio owed its rapid growth to the emergence of two new technologies: satellite transmission, which made it possible for local shows to go national; and 1-800 telephone numbers, which permitted shows to take callers from all over the country (Extra!, 1–2/07). That’s why talk radio was growing just as fast or faster before the Fairness Doctrine was jettisoned as it was afterwards. Source:

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