Media

Air Commands

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You may have heard that the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial topics, was abolished 14 years ago. Not quite.

In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission concluded that the requirement, first officially enunciated in the 1940s, had deterred TV and radio stations from dealing with issues of public concern: Broadcasters had steered clear of controversial discussions and provocative commentary because they were worried about possible disciplinary action. The FCC also noted that the proliferation of media outlets had made a legal mandate for diversity of viewpoints obsolete.

But the commission continued to enforce two narrower rules that posed similar threats to freedom of speech: the "political editorial rule," which required stations that criticized a candidate or endorsed his opponent to let him respond on the air, and the "personal attack rule," which gave the same right to individuals or groups whose "honesty, character, integrity, or like personal qualities" were impugned. The commission was never able to explain why these rules were not just as unnecessary, counterproductive, and unconstitutional as the Fairness Doctrine itself.

In October, noting the continued inadequacy of the FCC's defense after many years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered it to rescind both regulations. The commission had announced a 60-day suspension of the rules a week earlier, but the court saw that move as too little, too late. "The petition to vacate the rules has been pending since 1980," the judges noted. "If these circumstances do not constitute agency action unreasonably delayed, it is difficult to imagine circumstances that would."