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TV news and the Fairness Doctrine - Martha Carr

Let's bring back the Fairness Doctrine that required television journalists to, at least, attempt to be fair. That's right, there was a magic time in American when the suits at the three main networks, ABC, NBC and CBS had to set aside a certain amount of air time devoted to controversial topics or current affairs and all sides of an issue had to be presented.

The regulation worked so well that Congress made it a law in 1959 and it lasted almost forty years and helped shape the way the American public viewed news anchors, at least before 1984, when it was repealed.

The Fairness Doctrine was started in 1949 just as television was barely making headway into living rooms and created an expectation by viewers that TV news producers had their best interests in mind when assigning news stories.

Radio had a similar policy dating to 1927 and was started by the FCC's forerunner, the Federal Radio Commission. It was also common practice to keep entertainment divisions, which gave shows the axe based on ratings, far apart from news divisions.

News programs that didn't garner great ratings, but were considered in the public good were left on the air as a means to fulfill the requirement. That, at least, gave average Americans a fighting chance at forming their own opinions, rather than being spoon fed the bits that someone else, whether a liberal or conservative, had decided voters needed to know.

Policy makers saw the power of advertising and knew that dollars could drive a news show with the results being a skewed message. The public wouldn't have the resources to know whether or not they were receiving a fair and balanced broadcast or just what someone with enough money or political pull wanted them to know.

There is an old saw that things used to be better in America. That whole idea requires a lot of overlooking or denial in order to really pull off, and is probably best attempted in locker rooms at country clubs. However, the economic debacles and looming health-care crisis have left a whiff of reform in the air once again and TV journalism is something that could stand some tinkering. It used to be better in America.

And this is one reform that wouldn't silence either side, because it doesn't address what can't be on the air, but instead, talks about what ought to be always available on the television airwaves. In the past, the Fairness Doctrine has ensured that those who held an opposing viewpoint, such as the National Rifle Association one day or Planned Parenthood the next, would still be heard.

Everyone could turn off their sets, but the opportunity to voice how they felt was considered an American right. It's also a fundamental aspect of free speech to allow even those we don't agree with to have their say.

But since 1984, all of the major networks have come to see their news divisions as a part of the entire entertainment package, and the quality of news has suffered as a result. Segments have become shorter and it's not unusual to see celebrity news lead a major newscast. It's obvious that ratings and, therefore, advertising dollars have become more important than "affording reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance."

It's why late night entertainer, Jay Leno, can walk down any street in America and ask who is the vice president, drawing blank stares, but get a rundown on who's left in the American Idol competition. It gets a lot of yucks when he finds a school teacher or a guy in college who can't name the three branches of government or even one branch, but it has an eventual affect on the quality of our democracy.

It works like this: if no one ever presents all the topics of the day, then a smaller and smaller group gets to decide for us because we aren't even aware there's a discussion. Average citizens have busy lives and don't have the resources to seek out the topics.

Eventually, a pattern of bypassing the public emerges and a lot of our rights have quietly ebbed away. If that sounds at all familiar, start e-mailing your congressman and ask about bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, and a more lively discussion that won't mention Paris unless the topic is France.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at Martha@caglecartoons.com.