When there were only a handful of public media outlets more than 50 years ago, the Fairness Doctrine seemed necessary because it required broadcasters to present both sides of controversial issues.
Today, that thinking behind the doctrine is as dated as the mainstream media itself.
The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission’s view, honest, equitable and balanced. The doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented.
The doctrine was abandoned in the mid 80’s for the ‘chilling effect’ it appeared to have on broadcasters by “restricting the journalistic freedom of broadcasters … [and] actually inhibiting the presentation of controversial issues of public importance to the detriment of the public and the degradation of the editorial prerogative of broadcast journalists.” The doctrine remained ‘on the books’, unenforced until earlier this month.
As bloggers, journalists, and consumers, there is no reason to mourn the Fairness doctrine, which served its pre-Internet era purpose. Instead, we need to stay focused on ‘Net Neutrality’ — an essential freedom on information tenant of the FCC that remains at risk. Why? Net Neutrality protects everyone’s access to the Internet.
The ‘Net Neutrality’ principle advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers or governments on consumers’ access to networks that participate in the internet. It prevents restrictions on content, sites, platforms, types of equipment that can be attached to the internet.
“Network neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet,” says Google’s Public Policy blog. “The Internet has operated according to this neutrality principle since its earliest days… Fundamentally, net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet… Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say, broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activity online.”
Net neutrality is opposed by members of the Cable TV and telecommunications industries that want to protect their turf. Cable and telecommunication providers are uneasy about providing Internet infrastructure to consumers that can be co-opted by competitors such as Netflix, Vonage, Amazon on Demand, and others. Even Google — a long-time supporter of Net Neutrality — is backpeddling on Net Neutrality for wireless carriers.
This can’t be tolerated. Broadcasters and telecommunication company’s can cling to their land lines and airwaves — but they have to let the content flow free.
Keep the Internet Awesome!
Enjoy this video on net neutrality by Google’s public policy team:
Credits: Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson.