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Friday, September 29, 2023


A return of ‘real news’ will take the Fairness Doctrine

The Fairness Doctrine is a tricky subject in American history.

The passage of the Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was established as the government authority that grants broadcast licenses. At the time, it was thought that there were only so many airwaves on which a radio or television station could operate. Therefore, the FCC was under the obligation to protect the public interest when granting licenses.

This became known as the Fairness Doctrine, which formalized, in a Commission Report, requiring licensees to spend time on controversial issues and to express contrasting views on the matter. The requirement was upheld by the Supreme Court and later repealed by the acting FCC chairman under President Reagan.

On the one hand, the requirements definitely attempted to control the broadcasters’ speech, which, if viewed as content-based requirements, is an infringement on First Amendment rights when viewed under strict scrutiny. On the other hand, the television and radio industries (both fall under the term “broadcasters”) have only grown more consolidated with higher barriers to entry than ever before.

The consolidation of the media industry has created a notion that cross-device outlets are synonymous with their broadcasting counterparts. However, there is a distinction. Broadcast outlets operate for free; this provides broadcasters the ability to reach a large audience.

The infrastructure needed to provide free content to the public across a city or even the entire nation is vast and expensive; it is so vast and expensive that, while the technological scarcity of the airwaves argument is no longer feasible, the barriers to entry ensure the airwaves are as scarcely populated as possible.

Since its abolishment, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 replaced the Communications Act of 1934, and the rest is history. A history that consists of media oligopolies, extreme political polarization and a struggling “public” broadcasting system.

With the recent push against major news outlets from the White House, it appears that it is time to establish a broadcasting standard for the public. If belief-affirming news sources have been deemed “fake” by the executive branch of the government, a codified communications standard should exist to compare broadcasters’ (or media outlets at large) operations with the interests of the public.

At what point do we consider broadcasters’ speeches commercial speech? The majority of broadcasters’ parent companies are for-profit organizations that are constantly advertising their offerings and transmedia storytelling platforms on their programming.

“You can follow us on Twitter at…” and “make sure to download our app…” are blatant advertisements for products that generate revenue and often mark the segue into a commercial break, ironically.

If the Fairness Doctrine’s First Amendment infringement was viewed under intermediate scrutiny, like many commercial speech cases, the unconstitutionality of the provisions of the Fairness Doctrine would not be as easy to distinguish.

The executive branch has made a hard stance on its preference of media outlets. To have a truly active marketplace of opposing viewpoints is an ethos aligned with the public. To have a truly active marketplace is the ethos aligned with a corporation. The two should not be misaligned together.

The relatively small group of broadcasters in the United States are beholden to corporate interests. If we truly want an ebb and flow of ideas, some sort of stopgap measure needs to be implemented for the structural basis of presenting opposing ideas across broadcasting outlets. That is, if the brandishing of news outlets as “fake news” that create false narratives of the executive branch is the main concern in the first place.

Otherwise, my concern is that the executive branch is beholden to corporate interests that create the fourth branch of the government.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached [email protected]

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