Mass Media and the Internet in the United States

Regulation of the Broadcast Media in the United States

In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine, a longstanding regulation that required broadcast media to provide equal time to opposing points of view on controversial issues. The equal-time rule, which requires some effort by broadcast media to provide equal time to candidates, remains in force.

Created in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent government agency that regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable (broadcast media). The commission is responsible for enforcing laws dealing with communications. One of its policies was the fairness doctrine, an FCC rule enforced from 1949 to 1987 requiring radio and television broadcasters, all of whom are licensed by the FCC, to provide fair and balanced coverage of all controversial subjects, devoting equal airtime to opposing views. Under this doctrine, opinion programs on politics had to include opposing opinions. It also meant that broadcasters had to notify anyone who may be personally attacked on a program that they were planning to air so that they had an opportunity to respond.

In Red Lion Broadcasting Company v. FCC (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the fairness doctrine as constitutional and not an infringement of broadcasters' 1st Amendment right to free speech. The decision was based in part on the principle that radio frequencies were scarce and thus the government had the right to impose rules on those granted licences to use them. By the 1980s, as more radio and television stations arose, that rationale came into question. After reviewing the fairness doctrine, the FCC concluded that, in light of subsequent 1st Amendment rulings and the growth of media outlets, the scarcity principle no longer applied. While granting that the courts, not the FCC, had the power to determine constitutionality of rules, the FCC found the fairness doctrine suspect on other grounds. The commission concluded that the doctrine was in fact chilling coverage of controversial topics because broadcasters—to avoid penalties for not presenting all relevant opinions—were declining to provide any coverage. Buttressed by a court of appeals ruling that Congress had never written the fairness doctrine into law, the FCC in 1987 announced it would no longer enforce the fairness doctrine. While it formally remained in FCC rules for 24 more years, it was ultimately repealed in 2011. As a result, broadcasters are no longer required to provide time for differing viewpoints on their programs.

One provision of the fairness doctrine that remains in effect is the equal-time rule, a federal requirement that media outlets provide an equal amount of airtime to all major candidates for political office during an election campaign. For example, if a station sells airtime to a candidate, it must give all other candidates for the same office the option to buy the same amount of airtime. Any candidate who cannot afford to purchase the time is not given the equal time for free; however, if a station gives free time to the first candidate, it has to provide the same amount of free time to others. The equal-time principle was codified into law by Congress in 1959, although exceptions are made for candidates being covered as part of news coverage or officeholders running for reelection who appear on the station through news coverage of their official activities.