LIKE "RIGHT-TO-WORK" laws and "revenue enhancement" schemes and "freedom of choice" which used to be the name of a policy that worked to keep black kids out of white schools, the "fairness" doctrine is a concept whose label is more attractive than its content. Who could be against anything called "fairness"? It is, though, a misnomer, a doctrine that sounds high-minded and above criticism, but is neither.
The fairness doctrine was a creation of the Federal Communications Commission. In a series of adjudications and policy statements beginning in the '40s, the commission had sought to ensure evenhanded debate by requiring broadcasters to cover contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of public policy. The result, though, was not the "robust and unfettered exchange of ideas" the commission had sought to produce, but rather a stifling of discussion on the most controversial issues. Because the penalty for failure to comply with the standard was so severe -- broadcasters could lose their licenses -- many opted instead to avoid spirited discussion of topics that were most likely to provoke demands for response time. The result, according to the commission, was not fairness, but "blandness."
This week on a vote of 4 to 0, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the fairness doctrine on grounds that it unconstitutionally restricts the First Amendment rights of broadcasters. The government could never have imposed such a rule on print journalists, but because air channels were limited and had to be allocated by a licensing process, different standards have applied for radio and television. Now, an increasing number of outlets have been made available by such new technologies as cable and satellite transmission, so there is little chance that a community's airwaves will be dominated by a single broadcaster. The company that owns this paper also owns broadcast facilities in other cities, and we have long believed that the distinction between government regulation of the two forms of media was outmoded. While broadcasters will still have to show that they operate in the public interest and while one important rule governing time allocation remains -- the equal-time provisions that cover federal political campaigns -- as a general rule, there will now be far less second-guessing of broadcasters by government officials, detailed evaluation of program content by the FCC and general chilling of debate on controversial issues.
The FCC has done the right thing, and Congress should take no action to overturn its decisio