The Death of the Fairness Doctrine

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“I would encourage you,” Rush Limbaugh wrote to President Obama in 2009, “not to allow your office to be misused to advance a political vendetta against certain broadcasters whose opinions are not shared by many in your party.” That, Limbaugh said, was what the President would be doing if he supported FCC rules regarding “so-called” public interest. In particular, Limbaugh was arguing against the resurgence of the Fairness Doctrine, a divisive rule the FCC officially threw out on Monday.

To many on the right, the Fairness Doctrine and other rules regarding media content have represented arrows of government-imposed censorship aimed only at them, regulatory weapons that amounted to the “death knell of talk radio,” as Limbaugh wrote.

First instituted in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was a policy that required holders of broadcast licenses to discuss issues that were important to the public and to give contrasting viewpoints on those issues. Broadcasters didn’t have to give equal time to those viewpoints; they just had to make sure multiple perspectives were presented. With Reagan in the White House, the FCC voted to repeal the rule in 1987, but legislators have tried to bring it back since then. For years, the argument in Congress went like this:

Democrat: Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine is a matter of providing accountability and balance for the American people.

Republican: Poppycock. It’s a ruse to silence the American people who don’t agree with you, particularly Glenn Beck.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski called this perennial debate a “distraction” in a Monday statement on the commission’s site, in which he announced the elimination of the Doctrine and 82 other “obsolete” rules. Obama also called it a distraction when Democratic stalwarts like Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton expressed interest in reviving it two years ago. (Obama did not support bringing it back.) Clinton cited the unbalanced nature of talk radio where “big money” is fueling “right wing talk shows.” Beck meanwhile has said that “talk radio balances the scales” against outlets like the New York Times, NBC News and TIME. Newt Gingrich has called the Doctrine “Affirmative Action for liberals.”

The FCC abolished the rule under Reagan because some stations were reluctant to discuss controversial issues, and the number of media outlets had grown since the rule’s inception. Many First-Amendment proponents were also uncomfortable with the prospect of government playing editor. In the late 1940s, when there seemed to be a pressing need for a rule prohibiting bias, a handful of television broadcast stations dominated the airwaves and radio stations were in much shorter supply. Today, with cable TV, 14,000 radio stations (not to mention the vast forums of the Internet), the spectrum of society is already discussing controversial issues at length and in public.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee were quick to applaud the rule’s demise on Tuesday. “The Fairness Doctrine is a relic of an earlier era when government officials thought they knew best what news and information the American people wanted and needed,” representatives Fred Upton and Greg Waldon wrote today in a statement. “The FCC has finally done what it should have done 20 years ago: It has scrapped the Fairness Doctrine once and for all.”

Of course, despite all the breathless reaction, the death of the Fairness Doctrine, which hasn’t been enforced in 20 years, is largely symbolic. “As I have said, striking this from our books ensures there can be no mistake that what has long been a dead letter remains dead,” Genachowski wrote on Monday. “The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago.”

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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