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The Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the Irony of Talk Radio: A Story of Political Entrepreneurship, Risk, and Cover

  • Juanita “Frankie” Clogston (a1)
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1. In its 2000 national platform, Democrats called for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. In 2005, Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill to reinstate the doctrine, but it did not make it out of committee. In 2007, House Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.) introduced a bill to permanently outlaw reinstatement of the doctrine, and the bill gained support of more than two hundred congressional Republicans but did not make it out of committee. See Marin Cogan, “Bum Rush: Obama’s Secret Plan to Muzzle Talk Radio. Very, very secret,” New Republic, 20 November 2008.

2. Roberts, James C., “‘Fairness Doctrine’ Misnamed ‘Localism’ Still a Threat to Talk Radio,” Human Events 65 (11 May 2009): 6. See also Rao, Mallika, “Christian Broadcasters Nervous about Talk of Reviving Fairness Doctrine,” Christian Century 125 (9 September 2008): 17.

3. President Barack Obama declared opposition to the Fairness Doctrine during his presidential campaign and a White House Spokesman reaffirmed opposition in February 2009 speaking to media outlets. “White House Opposes Fairness Doctrine Revival,”

4. Limbaugh’s ability to affect public opinion and participation has been debated. David Barker, based on his 1985 pilot study for the American National Election Study Board (ANES), found that Limbaugh did change attitudes, especially when the message was negative. See Barker, David and Knight, Kathleen, “Political Talk Radio and Public Opinion, Public Opinion Quarterly 64, no. 2 (2000): 149–70. Another study found that Limbaugh did not produce negative feelings among viewers. See Jones, David, “Political Talk Radio: The Limbaugh Effect on Primary Voters,” Political Communication 15, no. 3 (1998): 367–81.

5. Thomas W. Hazlett, “Dan Rather’s Good Deed: His Critics should thank him for sinking the Fairness Doctrine,” Weekly Standard, 21 March 2005,

6. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (New York, 2008), 45. Jamieson and Capella and Michael Keith refer to the onslaught of AM radio partisan shows after repeal. See Michael Keith, Radio Cultures: The Sound Medium in American Life (New York, 2008), xv. Barker writes, “With the end of the Fairness Doctrine, broadcasters were free to air ideologically biased programming.” See David Barker, Rushed to Judgment? Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior (New York, 2002), 6.

7. Jamieson and Capella, Echo Chamber, 45.

8. This emerged from telephone interviews with the author: Mimi W. Dawson, FCC commissioner 1981–87, telephone interview, 6 May 2009 (hereafter cited as Dawson telephone interview); Mark S. Fowler, FCC chairman 1981–87, telephone telephone interview, 5 May 2009 (hereafter cited as Fowler 2009 telephone interview), Fowler telephone interview, 22 March 2012 (hereafter cited as Fowler 2012 telephone interview); Dennis Patrick, FCC chairman 1987–89, telephone interview, 16 June 2009 (hereafter cited as 2009 telephone interview); and Senator Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) 1968–95, telephone interview, 7 May 2009 (hereafter cited as Packwood telephone interview).

9. Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, Report of the Commission, 13 FCC 1246 (1949).

10. Many books speak broadly to the FCC’s policies on public interest and their extension of those policies in the Fairness Doctrine. See James Baughman, Televisions Guardians: The FCC and the Politics of Programming, 1958–1967 (Knoxville, 1985); William B. Ray, FCC: The Ups and Downs of Radio-TV Regulation (Ames, Iowa, 1990). Robert Britt Horwitz, The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications (New York, 1989); and Fred Friendly, The Good Guys, The Bad Guys, and The First Amendment: Free Speech vs. Fairness in Broadcasting (New York, 1975.) Two Congressional Research Service (CRS) documents provided very useful information. See Thomas Durbin, CRS Report for Congress: A Legal Analysis of the FCC’s Abolition of the Fairness Doctrine (Washington, D.C.), 10 September 1987; and Kathleen Ann Ruane, Fairness Doctrine: History and Constitutional Issues (Washington D.C.), 11 March 2009.

11. Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. § 307(a) (1982 and Supp. V 1987). Under Section 315 of the Communications Act, the “equal time” rule, broadcast licensees were required to provide balanced airtime to candidates seeking political office. The “equal time” rule is codified at 47 U.S.C. 315 (a).

12. Richard T. Kaplan and Patrick D. Maines, The Government Factor: Undermining Journalistic Ethics in the Information Age (Washington, D.C., 1995).

13. Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, 396 (1969).

14. Ibid.

15. Mike Socolow, assistant professor, Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Maine, e-mail to the author, 15 April 2009.

16. Religious broadcasting was in some ways a forerunner to modern-day talk radio. For a history that includes the FCC’s role with respect to religious broadcasting, see Hendershot, Heather, “God’s Angriest Man: Carl McIntire, Cold War Fundamentalism, and Right-Wing Broadcasting,” American Quarterly 59, no. 2 (June 2007): 373–96. Hendershot’s piece focuses on the Christian conservative radio broadcaster Carl McIntire and on the FCC’s “free time” requirement that required broadcasters to give away time to serve community needs, including (starting in 1960) paid religious broadcasting, paving the way for evangelical radio. For a history of some of the early religious radio personalities, see Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest (New York, 1982). See also Ben Armstrong, The Electric Church (Nashville, 1979).

17. Jack Gould, “The Right to Answer Back,” New York Times, 14 January 1968, D17. Other accounts include: Fred J. Cook, “Radio Right: Hate Clubs of the Air,” The Nation, 25 May 1964, 523. Cook claimed there were “a minimum of 6,600 broadcasts a week, carried by more than 1,300 radio and television stations—nearly one out of every five in the nation . . . “that were right-wing.” As found in the letter from the United Church of Christ to the FCC on 6 September 1984, Neil Hickey of TV Guide reported that the “strident voices of the so-called Radical Right . . . [are] . . . now heard on more than 10,000 radio and television broadcasts each week in 50 states.”

18. Radio stations increased from 2,564 in 1949 to 9,766 in 1985, and the number of television stations increased from 51 in 1949 to 1,208 in 1985. See Inquiry into Section 73.190 of the Commission’s Rules and Regulations Concerning the General Fairness Doctrine Obligations of Broadcast Licensees in Gen. Docket No. 102 84-2 2d 145 (1985), 202–3.

19. National Association of Broadcasters and Appendix to Letter, 6 September 1984, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282. Adopted 11 April 1984; released 8 May 1984.

20. General Fairness Doctrine Obligations of Broadcasters, Notice of Inquiry, 49 Fed. Reg. 20,317 (1984).

21. My review at the FCC found 114 letters in support of the doctrine and 29 in support of repeal. In arriving at these numbers, I counted the number of individual letters, not the number of groups that signed on to each letter. Multiple groups signed many letters. Still the number provides some suggestion of the proportion of support and opposition to the repeal. See “FCC Comments,” Inquiry into the General Fairness Doctrine Obligations of Broadcast Licensees, Gen. Docket No. 84-282; FCC 84-140, 14 May 1984. Testimony before the FCC at hearings during the review process was also reviewed. Documents were reviewed at the FCC library in Washington, D.C., headquarters on 8 July 2009.

22. Broadcasters and the Fairness Doctrine: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 100th Cong., 1st sess., on H.R. 1934, 7 April 1987, vol. 4.

23. Phyllis Schafley in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282. Statement before the Federal Communications Commission Hearing on the Fairness Doctrine, 7 February 1985.

24. Mobil Oil, reply comments, 6 September 1984, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282. Adopted 11 April 1984; released 8 May 1984; General Motors, reply comments, 6 September 1984, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282.

25. Ibid.

26. Reed Irvine, Chairman of the Board, Accuracy in Media, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282. Statement before the Federal Communications Commission Hearing on the Fairness Doctrine, 8 February 1985.

27. ABC, reply comments, 8 November 1984, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282. Adopted 11 April 1984; released 8 May 1984.

28. NTIA, reply comments, 8 November 1984, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282. Adopted 11 April 1984; released 8 May 1984.

29. This is from a letter written 24 April 1984 from Carl McIntire, International Council of Christian Churches: “We have long opposed (the Fairness Doctrine) and have appeared before various Senate and House committees on this subject and other actions of the FCC. . . . I had 610 stations on July 5, 1973 when WXUR was removed from the air. Had this not happened, and I could have continued these last 11 years presenting the material, the facts, and our opinions about what had been going on in the religious world, I believe that the religious condition of our country would be different today as it relates to the crime and immorality and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Chris which we believe and preach.” International Council of Christian Churches. Letter in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282.

30. Letter from South Texas College of Law, 5 September 1984 in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282.

31. Letter from Gary Capps, 18 June 1984, in FCC Gen. Docket No. 84-282.

32. Horwitz, Robert B., “Broadcast Reform Revisited: Reverend Everett C. Parker and the ‘Standing’ Case (Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ v. Federal Communications Commission),” Communication Review 2, no. 3 (1997): 311–48.

33. Dawson telephone interview; Fowler 2009 and 2012 telephone interviews; Packwood interview and Patrick interview.

34. Packwood telephone interview.

35. Dawson telephone interview.

36. For discussions of political entrepreneurship and exercises of autonomy, see David Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862–1928 (Princeton, 2001); Jameson W. Doig and Erwin Hargrove, Leadership and Innovation: A Biographical Perspective on Entrepreneurs in Government (Baltimore, 1984); Adam Sheingate, “The Terrain of the Political Entrepreneur,” In Formative Acts: American Politics in the Making, ed. Stephen Skowronek and Matthew Glassman (Philadelphia, 2007), 13–31.

37. King, Desmond and Lieberman, Robert, “Finding the American State: Transcending the ‘Statelessness’ Account,” Polity 40 (2008): 368–78. Also regarding multiple actors, see Clemens, Elisabeth S. and Cook, James M., “Politics and Institutionalism: Explaining Durability and Change,” Annual Review of Sociology 25 (1999): 441–66.

38. Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy, 15.

39. Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development (New York, 2004).

40. James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy (New York, 1989), 28.

41. See Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy, and Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State (Cambridge, 1992).

42. Moe, “The Politicized Presidency,” 768.

43. Moe, Terry, “The New Economics of Organization,” American Journal of Political Science 28 (November 1984): 768.

44. Marissa Martino Golden, What Motivates Bureaucrats? Politics and Administration During the Reagan Years (New York, 2000).

45. Moe, Terry, “The Politicized Presidency,” in New Directions in American Politics, ed. Chubb, John and Peterson, Paul (Washington, D.C., 1985), 235.

46. Wood, Dan B. and Waterman, Richard W., “The Dynamics of Political Control of the Bureaucracy,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 3 (1991): 801–28.

47. David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy (New York, 2004), 295.

48. Fowler 2009 telephone interview.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Carpenter also discusses how an agency can acquire a strong reputation for power when it has, like the FDA in his example, and I would argue the FCC as well, “ex-ante” power—to regulate businesses before they got into the market (i.e., breaking up monopolies, denying licenses to broadcast). The FCC also had the ability to affect traffic flow of radio stations in and out of the marketplace. See Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy.

52. Fowler telephone interview, 22 March 2012 (hereafter Fowler 2012 telephone interview).

53. Patrick Buchanan, e-mail message to the author, 24 July 2011. Patrick Buchanan, e-mail message to the author, 11 November 2011.

54. Ibid.

55. Federal Communications Commission, “Fairness Report,” In the Matter of Inquiry into Section 73.1910 of the Commission’s Rules and Regulations Concerning the General Fairness Doctrine Obligations of Broadcast Licensees in Gen. Docket 84-282; FCC 85-495, Adopted 7 August 1985, 157.

56. Ibid., 169.

57. Ibid., 148.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid.

60. Fowler 2012 telephone interview.

61. Fowler 2009 telephone interview.

62. Robert Pettit, Senior Legal Adviser to FCC Commissioner Dawson (1982–86); General Counsel, FCC, 1989–92, telephone interview with author, 6 May 2009.

63. Patrick telephone interview.

64. Ibid.

65. David Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862–1928 (Princeton, 2001), 17.

66. Brock, The Republican Noise Machine, 297.

67. Telecommunications Research and Action Center v. Federal Communications Commission, 801 F.2d 501, 516 (1986); cert. denied, 482 U.S. 919 (1987).

68. Syracuse Peace Council v. FCC, 867 F.2d 654 (D.C. Cir. 1988).

69. In re Complaint of Syracuse Peach Council against Television Station WTVH Syracuse, New York, 2 FCC Rcd 5043 (1987).

70. Syracuse Peace Council v. FCC, 867 F.2d 654 (D.C. Cir. 1988); Meredith Corporation v. FCC, 809 F.2d 863 (D.C. Cir. 1987). For more sources on the Meredith case, see Durbin, “CRS Report,” Ruane, “Fairness Doctrine: History and Constitutional Issues,” among others.

71. Patrick telephone interview.

72. The Fairness in Broadcasting Act was S.742 in the Senate and H.R. 1934 in the House. See “Bill Summary & Status 100th Congress (1987–1988) H.R.1934,”

73. President Ronald Reagan, “Veto of Fairness Doctrine, June 17, 1987,”

74. Ibid.

75. President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas, Nevada,”

76. Fowler 2009 telephone interview.

77. Syracuse 1987, 5043.

78. “Alternatives Inquiry,” In the Matter of Inquiry into Section 73.1910 of the Commission’s Rules and Regulations Concerning Alternatives to the General Fairness Doctrine Obligations of Broadcast Licensees, 2 FCC Rcd 5272, 1987.

79. Patrick telephone interview.

80. James Mahoney, “Path Dependence in Historical Sociology,” Theory and Society 29 (2000): 513.

81. Fowler 2009 telephone interview.

82. Patrick telephone interview.

83. Daniel Greenstone uses the notion of a “boundary condition,” referring to liberalism during the Civil War. I found the concept useful to refer to the condition of legal or institutional uncertainty in this case. See David J. Greenstone, “Political Culture and American Political Development: Liberty, Union, and the Liberal Bipolarity,” Studies in American Political Development 1 (1986): 1–49.

84. Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (Minneapolis, 2004).

85. Ibid.

86. Patrick telephone interview.

87. Mahoney, “Path Dependence in Historical Sociology,” 513.

88. Dawson telephone interview.

A version of this article was presented at the Policy History Conference in June 2010. I wish to thank fellow conference panelists James L. Baughman, Robert B. Horwitz, and Richard John, each of whom provided invaluable feedback and follow-up communication on this project. I thank Steve Teles for helping me develop the project and Adam Sheingate for encouraging me to develop it into a conference paper and article. I thank Chris Sterling for assisting me during research and revision. I thank Joel Grossman and Amber Boydstun for input and review. I thank Richard Katz, my adviser, for his support. And I thank the principals who were interviewed herein and offered time and goodwill to speak with me to help build the historical record of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

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