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On the Fairness Doctrine

The Daily Mining Gazette recently received a call from a reader who was upset that we ran Connie Shultz’s column on Nov. 19, with no conservative counterpoint. The caller insisted that we were violating the Fairness Doctrine by not providing an immediate counterpoint alongside the column on the page. However, the Fairness Doctrine never applied to newspapers, and we at the Gazette would argue we already offer several diverse viewpoints on our editorial page.

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission introduced the Fairness Doctrine, replacing the Mayflower Doctrine that had come before it in 1941. With the introduction of radio and television news, there was mounting concern that the public would be flooded with nothing but pop music and entertainment, and voters would be left ignorant of a broad range of opinions and an in-depth discussion of current events and issues.

These concerns applied to radio and TV more than newspapers because there is a limit to the number of usable frequencies for broadcast. Newspapers, however, could be printed by any number of people.

The Fairness Doctrine contained two major rules: broadcasters must spend time covering public issues, and they must fairly represent and broadcast opposing viewpoints. It was mostly complied with voluntarily, with few instances of enforcement necessary.

In 1987, the FCC abolished most of the doctrine. They said that ample competition in the industry, enabled by cable television, made it unnecessary. Congress tried to pre-empt the decision and codify the Fairness Doctrine into law, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill. Another attempt at codification in 1991 was threatened with a veto by President George H.W. Bush and never reached his desk.

In the early 2000s, many Democrats talked about reviving the Fairness Doctrine with little action and Republicans, including current Vice President Mike Pence, made failed attempts to pass laws blocking the FCC rules from ever being reinstated.

The last vestiges of the Fairness Doctrine were purged by the FCC in 2011 under President Barack Obama’s direction to review and eliminate unnecessary regulations.

While this FCC rule never applied to newspapers, there was, for a short time, a law in Florida that required newspapers to provide equal print space for political candidates, political editorials, and political endorsements. This law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 as part of Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo. The court said the law exacted an unfair penalty on an “economically finite enterprise” based on its content, which would chill free speech. The decision called the law a direct violation of First Amendment rights. Editorial judgement is protected as free speech.

Despite this, the Gazette continues to represent differing viewpoints on this page every day. Through the week, we regularly feature 12 national columnists as well as occasional guests and frequent reader letters. Three of the Gazette’s weekly columnists clearly identify as conservative, and three as liberal, the others are independent, libertarian, populist, or focused on specific topics like crime or economics. We sincerely hope that among them you will find opinions you both agree and disagree with.

After all, an opposing opinion is like a grindstone — you have to be in contact with it to get any sharper.

Daily Mining Gazette

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