June 13, 2024

It is no secret that America has become increasingly polarized. We can seldom escape the issues of our time, whether that be heated debates over issues such as Roe v. Wade or gun laws. There is no place where this is more evident than the media. Both the left- and right-leaning media have made a mockery of our democracy, stifling the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of progress, and instead have traded it in for biased, partisan news that harms our democracy.

To understand how we got here, and what we will need to do moving forward to repair the damage done to our civil discourse, you have to understand the Fairness Doctrine.

The framework for the Fairness Doctrine got its start in 1927 with the Radio Act. The Radio Act did two things: it limited radio broadcasters to licensed broadcasters only, but it also mandated that broadcasters serve the public’s best interests.

In 1934 the Federal Communications Act replaced the Radio Act and led to the creation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC’s purpose was to “encourage the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest.” The two previous acts listed were done in an effort to promote a basic degree of fairness and give coverage to both sides of controversial issues. Candidates running for office were also given equal air time and people who felt they were unfairly attacked on air were allowed an opportunity to rebut what was said.

In 1969, the Fairness Doctrine was challenged in the Supreme Court case Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission. The court ruled in favor of the FCC after they found that a broadcasting station in Pennsylvania had not allowed a writer they called a communist sympathizer to have the time to respond to such an accusation.

This is important because it tells us something about the way people thought about media and the sharing of ideas compared to how people view it today. We used to believe that pushing one narrative and giving no thought to the other side was not only bad, but also detrimental to our democracy. You cannot reach a conclusion that suits everyone if you do not engage with the other side. It is how we grow as individuals and reach compromises as a group. We would expect the pushing of a single narrative in totalitarian regimes, such as the Chinese Communist Party, which imprisons journalists for trying to report outside of the approved narrative.

Yet the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 was what set us down the path toward biased, lopsided media because the budding television and media industry was worried it would push back against free speech. Yet this argument is false because the Fairness Doctrine helped facilitate free speech, not stifle it, forcing people to engage with each other and think about issues critically — issues that you eventually vote on in the polls. For if knowledge is the strength of democracies, ignorance is their weakness.

You can see the consequences of repealing the Fairness Doctrine, such as the concept of the “echo chamber,” an environment in which a person only sees and hear opinions and information that support their opinion.

People are having a more difficult time finding common ground, demonizing the other side rather than understanding we should be working together. So next time you watch Fox News or CNN, ask yourself if your side being right is worth the price we paid to lose the ability to have civil discussions and reach a solution that helps everyone.

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