Fairness Doctrine

The 1927 Radio Act stated that licensees did not own their own channels but could only license them as long as they operated to serve the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos 2017). The introduction of this act brought private, sensitive matters to the eyes and ears of listeners all over the world and allowed for a more informed public.

The Fairness Doctrine was established as a byproduct of the Radio Act of 1927. It re-defined and outlined the duties and responsibilities of all broadcasters. The doctrine mandated that a portion of airtime be used to provide coverage of public interest topics supported by differing viewpoints. (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2017)

The Fairness Doctrine of 1949 required TV and radio stations holding Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued radio and television broadcast licenses to allocate a portion of air time to public topics that were often controversial. The doctrine was loosely based around ideas from the Radio Act of 1927 when congress decided the FCC should only license new shows that were mainly focused on public interest topics. The FCC took this rule and interpreted it more literally, mandating opposing sides of a topic be represented if presented on air.

The public sphere is an important aspect of society that benefited greatly from the fairness doctrine. It describes the public sphere as a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Information from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television are the media of the public sphere. The media feeds the population information under the idea that they have the right to all information of public interest (Habermas, J., Lennox, F., & Lennox, S. 1974). The fairness doctrine helped to facilitate the need for an informed citizenry.

This document matters because it brought controversial issues to the attention of more people. It operated under the belief that all information was the right of the viewers and listeners, no matter what the topic. It also operated under the idea that there had to be opposing sides represented for the story to run on television or radio. The public was supposed to be informed, and the FCC believed it was the right of broadcasters to provide suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas or experiences.

Best of Enemies: Buckley v. Vidal

Best of Enemies was a film released in 2015. It is set during the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968. It features two candidates hired by ABC News who are put on live television to debate different topics for 10 nights. This was a monumental change in television. Never before had a network pitted two drastically opposing views against each other live. “They [the networks] were in the center. They were cementers of ideas not disruptors of ideas” (Best of Enemies, 4:15). The fairness doctrine allowed for this disruption to occur. It challenged viewers to think and support their thought processes rather than just follow the ideas of someone else.

The doctrine faced many criticisms during its years in effect. A lawsuit challenging the on first amendment grounds was brought to the Supreme Court in 1969. It was decided that the FCC had the right to regulate news content, but the problems did not stop there. It faced further scrutiny from radio and television broadcasters who said the doctrine was not fair because it did not encompass all forms of media broadcasters. The ruling only applied to television and radio, often times forcing controversial topics to be omitted from news stories. Mediums like newspapers and books were not subject to the same treatment and were allowed to run controversial topics even if both sides were not fairly represented. Ultimately the rule was reconsidered in the mid 80’s and was revoked.


Campbell, R., Martin, C.R., & Fabos, B (2017). Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age 11th Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s

Habermas, J., Lennox, F., & Lennox, S. (1974). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. In JStor(pp. 49-55). New German Critique. Retrieved December 2, 2017.

Producer & Director, Gordon, R., Neville, M.  (Director). (2015). Best of Enemies [Motion picture]. USA.

Image Attribution: The image used in this post is in the Public Domain

Written by Jackson Szurley, 2017